'Battle of Bayou Estates' awaits court date

Lawsuit wants subdivision road repaired by Police Jury or developer

For almost a decade, residents of Bayou Estates in Fifth Ward have complained about the condition of their road. They have pleaded with the Avoyelles Police Jury to maintain the road. The only thing the Police Jury has maintained about Bayou Estates Road is that it is not a parish road and so is not the parish’s responsibility.

This is the “Battle of Bayou Estates.”

Residents of the half-mile stretch of dirt, gravel and potholes got tired of the “not my table” attitude and filed suit. Now they are waiting for a trial date so a court can answer the questions that have been batted around for so many years: “Who is responsible, what can be done and when will the road be repaired to useable standards?”

At this time, the property owners are waiting on a decision from the court on a defense motion. No trial date has been set.

For the past several years, the Police Jury has said the responsibility is developer Tim Lambert’s. Lambert and the Bayou Estates residents believe it is a parish road and the Police Jury is responsible for maintaining it.

RACHAL COMMENTS

School bus driver Ed Rachal has been a leader in the “Battle of Bayou Estates.”

“If you drive down the road, it will beat up your car,” Rachal said. “You can break an axle or tire. It is severely bad.”

As a bus driver, Rachal is familiar with several bad roads. He said there are a few worse roads in the parish where a school bus cannot travel. A bus can go down Bayou Estates Road “but they have to drive slow and know the road, or it will tear up the bus.”

In March 2010, residents presented a petition asking for something to be done about the condition of the road.

“Lambert came out and did what he needed to do and the road was fine at that time,” Rachal said.

A few years later, the road was once again in bad condition.

“At that time, Lambert told us he was not going to spend any more money on that road,” Rachal noted.

That’s when the residents’ campaign to the Planning Commission and Police Jury began. When that failed to yield results, Rachal and Ray Dauzat filed suit. Not only are residents stuck living on a bad road, they may also be stuck with property they would like to sell and can’t.

"Right now, land companies will not finance a house unless the road has a service contract or it belongs to the parish," Rachal said.

He said residents are being punished because the Planning Commission, Police Jury and developer did not follow the parish’s regulations for subdivisions.

“Just because you fail to do what you are supposed to should not mean that everything falls on the shoulders of the people who have to live with this kind of situation,” Rachal said.

For example, he said, the parish standards say the road should be 20 feet wide with four-foot shoulders.

“There are places in this road that are not 10 feet wide,” Rachal said. There is no identifiable shoulder.

The regulations also require certain base for the road, and there is no base for this road. The Planning Commission requires an engineer’s certificate, and none was ever provided. The Planning Commission is supposed to have the project inspected to ensure that it meets all requirements, but there was never an inspection.

Failure of a developer to comply with regulations can result in a fine of $100 per day until the project is brought into compliance. The catch to that penalty provision is that the fine starts 10 days after the developer has been given written notice specifying the violations and demanding compliance with the regulations. It appears Lambert was never issued such a notice.

BEGAN IN 2005
Attorney Mark Jeansonne, who represents the property owners, said their position is that the road is a parish road. He said Lambert sent a servitude dedication for Bayou Estates to the Police Jury in 2005 that was approved by the Avoyelles Parish Planning Commission and signed by the Police Jury president.

“Everyone, including the developer, believed that meant the road would be a parish road maintained by the Police Jury,” Jeansonne said.

However, District Attorney Charles Riddle said the servitude dedication only means the road is "open to the public" -- which is quite different from being “a parish road.” Riddle said a “public road” is not necessarily the responsibility of the Police Jury.

Police Jury President Charles Jones said he was not on the Police Jury at that time, but was on the Planning Commission.

“The subdivision servitude had nothing to do with making it a parish road,” Jones said. “It is my recollection that there was never an intent on the Planning Commission’s part for the Police Jury to accept it as a parish road. It was just to approve the subdivision development.”

In past Police Jury meetings, jurors have noted that state law would prohibit the parish from doing any work on Bayou Estates Road, even if the Police Jury wanted to -- and jurors have been careful not to say whether they would want to.

PRIVATE PROPERTY
Jones said the road is private property and the parish cannot do work on private property, even if it is used by the public.

“I’d say there are 25 sections of private roads in this parish that are open to the public that people would like to turn over to the Police Jury,” Jones said. “We cannot accept that maintenance obligation.”

Jones said the parish has standards that a road must meet before the jury will take it into the parish road system. Bayou Estates Road has never met those standards and has never been accepted as a parish road.

Jeansonne said the last hearing on the case was short-circuited when Lambert’s attorney, Rodney Rabalais, filed a motion asking the judge to rule that since “all property owners on this road are indispensible parties, all property owners have to be part of this suit.” There are about 27 property owners along Bayou Estates Road. Jeansonne said he understands the reasoning behind the motion, but disagrees that it should block his client’s suit from going to trial.

“The defense’s concern was that next year another property owner could file suit and then the following year two more could file suit, and so on,” Jeansonne said. “I believe the issue is clear enough to resolve: Is it a parish road or not?”

If the suit can go to trial and be resolved, there would be no threat of multiple suits against the Police Jury trying to get a different result, he said.

Rabalais disagrees and says all property owners need to be party to the suit or sign a waiver stating they will not come back and file suit on the issue.

“Our position is simple,” Rabalais said. “Lambert Construction built the road according to the specifications approved by the Police Jury and it was accepted by the Police Jury. He has no further liability to maintain that road.”

The plaintiffs and the Police Jury agree that Lambert did not follow the planning regulations or that the Planning Commission did not follow its own rules by inspecting the project to ensure compliance.

Jones said that in the past, the Planning Commission operated on an “honor system” with developers, taking their word that they were actually following the rules and regulations. The commission often did not check to make sure the regulations were obeyed. That changed after Rachal and Dauzat filed suit.

The fact that the lawsuit has already prompted the Planning Commission and Police Jury to “do things the right way” is not much comfort to residents who find it safer to drive in the ditch than on the road.

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