The ongoing dispute for ownership of Buffalo Landing Road escalated this week when attorney Johnny Dollar said he intends to sue five members of the Union Parish Police Jury for depravation of property rights over their refusal to abandon the road.
The move comes after jury members admitted in a May 2 public meeting that they were choosing to ignore a strongly worded warning from the jury’s own attorney against trying to maintain control of the road.
In that meeting attorney Steven Oxenhandler told the jury, “I just want to say so that everyone hears, there are so many reasons why we would not win this. The law is totally against us. I just hope that everybody understands that we should not do this.”
Despite that warning, jury members Johnny Buckley, Ben Bridges, L.W. Nolan, Ceis Nyegaard and Nathan Pilgreen said they continue to oppose abandoning the road.
The five jurors formed the majority when the jury voted 5-4 in April to reject Dollar’s request.
Dollar is part owner of The Gazette.
Complicating matters is the fact that the road appears to end a hundred feet from the bayou and about a year ago Dollar installed a gate a few feet past that point. Jurors, however, say the road extends to the water’s edge and claim that the gate illegally blocks a public thoroughfare.
Dollar disagrees and says the road has never met the requirments under state law for a road to become public. There are no homes near the road, no utilities or infrastructure of any kind and all the property it touches belongs to Dollar.
Since the jury’s April vote, Dollar said video cameras have twice captured images of a private citizen removing the gate. Earlier this year, Oxenhandler advised the jury not to attempt to remove the gate without first obtaining a court order giving it the power to do so. Despite that advice, jurors discussed in the May 2 meeting the possibility of removing the gate without a court order.
Juror Dewayne Ramsey, who voted in April to abandon the road, expressed frustration with his fellow jurors for entertaining the idea.
“(Oxenhandler) said don’t touch the gate without a court order. I’m just a construction worker, but I think it might be wise to take his advice.” Ramsey said. “I’m not going to be a part of telling a parish employee to do something that could be illegal.”
Dollar said he is convinced the jurors’ refusal to abandon the road stems from personal animosity toward him.
Buffalo Landing Road passes through Dollar’s property, connecting Buffalo Hole Road to a small open area on Bayou DeLoutre that in years past people used to launch boats into the bayou.
Dollar purchased the property about 10 years ago. Over time, he said, he realized people were crossing his property less and less to put boats in the water and more and more to party by the bayou, “mud-hog” and hunt on his land.
The Buffalo Hole Road saga began three years ago when Dollar first appealed to the Police Jury to formally abandon its claim on the road using a process that allows parishes and municipalities to relinquish control of roads that serve no meaningful public purpose. The UPPJ has abandoned 14 such roads in the past three years, and the Town of Farmerville did so less than a month ago.
“But not my road,” Dollar said. “It seems those five jurors are applying a standard they did not apply in those other cases. How am I to conclude that this is anything but a personal attack on my right to protect my property from trespassers, poachers, drunks and dopeheads?”
Rather than sue the Police Jury as a whole, Dollar said he intends to sue five members of the jury, individually, so taxpayers will not have to foot the bill. The Police Jury maintains an insurance policy that covers legal expenses if the jury is sued as a public body. Dollar said he feels that fact has emboldened those five members to ignore the advice of attorneys whose job it is to protect the parish from legal liability.
“It’s abundantly clear that the jury is not acting for benefit of the parish,” Dollar said. “They’ve chosen to ignore their own attorney’s advice and put the parish at risk because it doesn’t cost them a thing to do so. They’re guided by their personal animosity for me and not their duty to the citizens of Union Parish.”
While citizens can sue public bodies, such as a police jury or city council, public officials are largely immune from being sued, personally, for actions taken as part of their official duties. There are exceptions, however, one of which allows officials to be sued for using the power of their office to violate the rights of an individual citizen.
According to Dollar, if the jurors thought their claim was legally viable they would already have filed a lawsuit to bring the matter to a close. The fact that they haven’t he said, indicates that they know they are operating “outside the law” and should be held accountable for their actions.
“I don’t want to do this, and I am hopeful those jurors will reconsider the course they’ve taken,” Dollar said. “I feel a responsibility, however, to respond if they don’t. Not every citizen has the resources or knowledge to defend themselves from personal vendettas by public officials. I do, and if I have to, I will.”
If the matter does go to court, a decision may well hinge on whether Dollar can prove that the parish has failed to maintain the road as required by law. He says the parish hasn’t performed regular maintenance on the road for almost 30 years. Jurors have said that isn’t true, and say they have the records to prove it.
“The problem is that there is no clear definition how much maintenance is required for a road to be public,” Juror Ben Bridges said, “but we have maintained that road, and we have the records to prove that we’ve been maintaining it.”
Parish road maintenance records indicate that the parish has attempted to repair Buffalo Landing Road once a year for the past three years with smaller efforts in between. Those records, however, do not specify where on the road that maintenance is conducted. Frequently, the records have vague descriptions such as “Road work” and “Filling Holes”.
Dollar said the parish has maintained the area where Buffalo Landing Road and Buffalo Hole Road intersect but called claims that the entire road is being maintained “completely false,” and work that has been done was performed despite his written protest in which he informed the jury that its efforts did not improve the jury’s claim on the road, and as such, were a waste of taxpayer money.