When the West Baton Rouge Parish government began to construct the second part of its multi-use levee trail, Parish President Riley “Pee Wee” Berthelot did not want or expect any controversy.
But workers paving a 5-mile stretch of levee top for bicycle and pedestrian use found themselves locked out by nearby property owners. Although a restraining order was granted for the workers to continue their work, the landowners and parish officials are scheduled for a court date in the coming weeks to negotiate. The court date was scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 17, but Berthelot said that will likely be pushed to Oct. 31.
The complainant, West Baton Rouge Parish, hopes to settle with defendants Joseph Tullier, Rae Tullier, Barton Tullier and Phillip Debenedetto, who reside on three properties, Berthelot said.
Landowners have two major concerns, Berthelot said: 1) liability and 2) government encroachment on their land. Property owners want assurances that they will be protected if someone gets hurt on the levee and they want to continue to use the levee the way they always have.
“We’re trying to work toward a compromise,” said Berthelot. “We don’t want to open a can of worms. We’re just trying to make this thing happen. It’s a good project.”
A similar project paved a short stretch of levee top for pedestrian use in Brusly last summer. Berthelot expressed some frustration over the many bumps in the road and project delays that come with construction on the levee. This one was unforeseen, he said.
“They’re just trying to protect their property rights and we’re trying to respect their property,” he said.
The new dispute is “way out of the scope” of the Levee Board’s usual line of business, according to Levee Board Chairman John Grezaffi.
State statute provides that local government can utilize the levee top for projects, such as the levee trail, but that the landowners would need to be a part of that discussion, Grezaffi said.
Of the many property owners on the levee, no others have complained, according to Berthelot. The parish began working on the project in 2012, he said.
As the levee top becomes more popular, more laws and rules are bound to crop up, in both local and state law, Grezaffi said. “The more traffic that you have on these levees, it becomes more of a safety deal for everyone.”