External problems threaten Lake Martin access 

(Photo by Nick Vaccaro)

Big fish but bigger problems.

Located outside of Breaux Bridge, Lake Martin has been widely touted as a fishing mecca, yet plagued with border and access feuds that have recently escalated to new heights. Decisions made and actions taken have left this state body of water with restricted access and limited use.

The St. Martin-Lafayette Wildlife and Game Commission was created when Lake LaPointe was expanded into Lake Martin. A servitude was agreed upon in writing stipulating public access to all land situated between the water’s edge and the levee, known as Rookery Road. Additionally, a boat launch was built with taxpayer money in the 1960s on private land within that servitude and leased by the Commission for 25 years, with a lease renewal option. Public use and private landowner co-existed peacefully.

In 1982, the Commission was abolished, and although the lake’s responsibility shifted to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the servitude was interpreted differently.

“The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has jurisdiction of Lake Martin’s water only,” said Cole Garrett, general counsel for the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Property owners closed and blocked the public boat ramp at Lake Martin earlier this year because it is in need of repair. (Photo by Nick Vaccaro)

As years passed, families that owned the boat launch allowed the public, as well as state officials, to use it at will. Local businesses, including swamp boat tours, were also free to use the launch but could not build a permanent structure, as the lake is zoned Woodlands-2 and not for commercial activity.

A time of change

Things began to change in 2011 when Bryan Champagne leased from a landowner a piece of waterfront property on Rookery Road. In two years, he obtained two building permits and constructed permanent structures known as Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours and The Wharf on Lake Martin. Interpretations of the Commission’s servitude defined that land as wetlands and, therefore, permanent structures were prohibited.

The St. Martin Parish Council initiated court proceedings to remove Champagne’s structures. Champagne won the case; the decision has been appealed. 

“My business is my life, and I am leaving it up to my lawyer and the Parish Council,” Champagne said. “I’d rather not discuss anything else on the matter.”

Boating concerns

According to Ryan Hebert, whose family has a stake in the land on which the boat launch is constructed, that due to the Parish not keeping up the facilities at the boat launch, it is in need of repair. His family, as well as others who share ownership, have liability concerns should a user become injured. As a result, the landowners notified the public earlier this year that the boat launch would close on March 1, 2020. A barrier was staged to block access.

“If the parish would actually talk to the landowners that are shutting down the landing maybe something could get agreed upon,” Hebert said in a post on the Friends of Lake Martin Facebook page.

Chester Cedars, St. Martin Parish president, said the parish is dedicated to preserving the integrity of Lake Martin. The city council wants Lake Martin to remain available to the public and provide the enjoyment for which it was established.

 “I proposed a solution to the landowners to have the boat launch re-opened to the public. The parish cannot spend any public funds on private land until an agreement is signed,” Cedars said. “Tell us what you want, and we’ll do our best to get it done.”