Airboat use talk floods St. Charles council

Published 11:45 pm Friday, August 22, 2014

By Richard Meek

LULING — Airboat tour operators in St. Charles Parish will be able to continue to traverse private property after a proposed ordinance to curtail their accessibility garnered little support among council members Tuesday night.

Councilman Paul Hogan introduced an ordinance that would have essentially empowered property owners to decide who they would allow to access their private property, in this case non-navigable waters.

According to state law, property owners own the water bottoms of waterways deemed non navigable by the state, thus creating what amounts to a private waterway. Airboat tour operators have been using those waterways for their operations, but property owners have complained the boats are causing erosion, are harmful to the natural habitat, create safety hazards and pose a noise nuisance.

“We are eliminating the hazardous use of airboats,” Hogan said before a public hearing that lasted more than one hour, which pitted tour operators against landowners.

Hogan cited the Hahnville, Paradis and 80-Arpent canals as popular private waterways to operators.

Boat captain Rodney Dufrene called into question if the waterways even belonged to the landowners, citing history dating to when Native Americans inhabited the area. He also noted parish maintenance workers use airboats to travel the area. But Hogan, on several occasions, repeated the ordinance was only designed to give property owners the ability to decide who could use the private waterways and was not intended to define a navigable waterway.

He said the owners have the right to post the waterways to keep away unwanted visitors, in this case airboat tour operators.

“I don’t know why these people are allowed to continue to trespass on private property,” said property owner Rupert Brennan of Kenner, who identified several parcels of land his family owns that operators are currently using.

“We don’t want to (risk) the liability,” he added. “These boats are operating at high speeds. They are infringing on our way of life.”

Supporters also claimed airboats endanger lives of tourists since the tours operate during south Louisiana’s various hunting seasons. One tour operator said he notified customers of any potential danger.

“It’s a huge safety issue the boats take on during hunting season,” council member Carolyn Schexnaydre said. “You don’t know where bullets are going when they leave the gun.”

Dufrene responded a “hunter is supposed to be aware of where is shooting,” to which Schexnaydre retorted, “Suppose he misses that deer?”

In response to a question from council chairman Julia Fisher-Perrier, an admitted hunter, one tour operator said his traditional hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. but noted tours can start earlier.

Tour boat operators also raised an equality issue, saying smaller flat boats and other watercraft are able to use the same waterways without any challenges.

Parish President V.J. St. Pierre said some hunting clubs use airboats to transport hunters but property owners appeared to be more concerned about the tour operators, who operate year round and throughout the day.

Council members voted 6-2 against the ordinance, although most of those in the public hearing appeared to support it. Only Hogan and Schexnaydre voted for passage.

In other council news, members voted unanimously and with little comment to approve Hogan’s resolution to display the motto “In God We Trust” in council chambers.

Hogan said it was the national motto and appeared in such prominent places as dollar bills and federal buildings. He said a design or a location inside the chambers has been determined but he expected it come in at less than $500.