A district judge has ruled in favor of a local swamp tour business that was accused of violating a St. Martin Parish zoning ordinance.
Judge Keith Comeaux on Monday denied the petition for injunctive relief filed against Bryan Champagne and his two businesses – Champagne’s Cajun Swamp Tours and the Wharf on Lake Martin – both of which are located in Breaux Bridge along the shores of Lake Martin.
The motion was filed by the St. Martin Parish Government in April 2016, alleging that Champagne was operating his business in violation of certain zoning regulations.
The tract of property at the center of the litigation is situated on the eastern shoreline of Lake Martin in rural St. Martin Parish, at 1076 and 1151 Rookery Road in Breaux Bridge.
According to court records, Champagne leases the property on Rookery Road from its owner Ronald Massicot.
During his testimony, Champagne said that he operated his swamp tour business out of his truck like several other similar businesses operating at Lake Martin. However, he decided he wanted to expand and had the idea to build the Wharf at Lake Martin after getting permission to begin construction from Massicot.
Champagne testified that he then obtained the original building permit, with no objections, from the St. Martin Parish Government’s Office of Planning and Zoning in 2011, when Guy Cormier served as parish president.
Champagne then further expanded his business to offer four additional boats that could accommodate wheelchair and handicapped customers. He also constructed a deck and roof with a shop area to accommodate a growing number of tourists that included school children.
Champagne said the he was able to obtain the additional building permits, as well as a permit to operate a commercial grocery/bakery shop, from St. Martin Parish Government with no objections or complaints from 2012 to 2015.
It wasn’t until March 2016 that Champagne received a letter from the St. Martin Parish Government advising him that all of his commercial and retail enterprises being conducted at the premises were in violation of their zoning regulations. The letter ordered Champagne to immediately cease all operations at Rookery Road.
According to the St. Martin Parish Government’s comprehensive zoning plan, which was originally enacted in 1995, the property actually falls under the zoning designation of “W-2,” which does not permit any activity of a commercial character. This designation also does not allow signs higher than 120 feet, which Champagne was accused of violating with his business signage on the property.
It was also revealed during the testimony of St. Martin Parish Clerk of Court Becky Patin that the current zoning map was not filed on record with her office until as recently as April 4, 2019. The previous zoning map did not detail certain areas of the unincorporated parts of the parish.
St. Martin Parish President Chester Cedars was called to testify during Monday’s hearing and admitted that the St. Martin Parish Government issued the building permits to Champagne.
“Great care should be taken by the St. Martin Parish Government to protect that area,” Cedars testified. “The permit was improperly issued. People make mistakes. I think an administrative error was made.”
Comeaux agreed adding that it was a “clear administrative error” after reminding both parties that Cormier had inspected the facility at Rookery Road and still issued the permits.
“St. Martin Parish freely admits that there were errors on both sides,” said Allan Durand who was representing the St. Martin Parish Government alongside Cedars.
Ultimately, Comeaux ruled that Champagne had done what the parish had required of him and that his rights would be violated if the injunction were to be enforced.
“The zoning ordinances are lacking at best,” said Comeaux just before making his ruling. “I’ve been brought no evidence that the Louisiana Constitution has been violated. The zoning map was not filed on record with the clerk of court until April 4, 2019, after Bryan Champagne obtained the permits.”
Outside the courthouse, Durand said that the decision to appeal the judge’s ruling and any future action on the issue will be up to the St. Marin Parish Council to decide.