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Bill pits local hunters against airboat operators

By Kyle Barnett -   May 03, 2012

Senate Bill 648 would allow the parish to regulate equipment, permit fees and speed limits for airboats. One resident says the airboats scare wildlife off of his hunting lease. Airboat operators say they have a license to run in public waterways and that
Kyle Barnett
Senate Bill 648 would allow the parish to regulate equipment, permit fees and speed limits for airboats. One resident says the airboats scare wildlife off of his hunting lease. Airboat operators say they have a license to run in public waterways and that

Legislation that would give St. Charles Parish authority over airboats operating on local waterways is pending in the House after passing the Senate in a 39-0 vote a few weeks ago.

Senate Bill 648 would allow St. Charles Parish to become the second parish in the state to establish local control over commercial or recreational airboats. This would include the ability to regulate equipment required for airboat travel, speed limits, airboat permits and inspections, licensing and airboat permit fees, defining violations and assessing penalties. If passed, the law would give the St. Charles Parish Sheriffís Office the authority to enforce any regulations passed by the Parish Council.

The legislation is seen largely as the culmination of a disagreement between local hunters and airboat operators who cater mostly to tourists visiting from New Orleans.

"Where your rub really comes in is some of these hunting lease lands versus some of these airboat owners," said Sen. Gary Smith, D–Norco. "The parish asked me to do this so Iím trying to help the parish so they can better work with residents and businesses."

Morris Hymel said he pushed for the legislation due to airboat operators giving tours in the area of his 1,192-acre hunting lease located off of Highway 3127 in Boutte. Hymel says the tours scare wildlife off his land and are a general nuisance.

"They run constantly, seven days a week from ten oíclock in the morning until four oíclock in the afternoon," Hymel said. "And by the time they get done running their boats for the day the canal looks like a cesspool itís so churned up with mud and stuff."

Airboat operators at Swamp Adventures on Highway 3127, near Hymelís lease, disagree with the idea that their business should be regulated.

"We have a couple of hunters who want to take control of public waters," said Rodney Dufrene, who is a boat captain at Swamp Adventures. "We have license to run in public waters and all the waterways we are running are public, but there is just a half a dozen or so hunters who are upset that private citizens and companies are actually utilizing public waterways."

Other airboat operators said the current problems between hunting lease holders and airboat operators should be taken care of by the sheriffís department and the legislation is unnecessary.

Arthur Matherne said he was the one who started the airboat tour business in the parish 20 years ago with his business Airboat Tours by Arthur Matherne off Highway 90 in Des Allemands.

"The problem that is happening right now is the sheriffís department is not doing their job," Matherne said. "They need to stop the problem with the people that is causing trouble–not come mess with everybody in the whole parish for a handful of people thatís causing the trouble."

Matherne, whose business operates mainly in Lafourche Parish, said if St. Charles Parish receives the ability to regulate airboats that Lafourche would be next. He said he would consider filing a discrimination lawsuit if regulations to restrict the noise level of the airboats affect his business.

"Some people complain about the noise. Iíve got noise on that highway that makes more noise than anything around," Matherne said. "Everything in the state makes noise."

Matherne said he does not receive many complaints because he runs his airboats on a hunting lease he rents and that he tries to respect his neighbors by idling when within a quarter of a mile of residences.

The main problem as Hymel describes it is that tours operating near his lease do not take precautions to limit disturbances in the area.

"All of the fishermen and hunters I know will have to stick together whenever this comes up. Itís not about running anyone out of business. Believe me, I donít want to do that," Hymel said. "Youíve got to have respect for everybody else and these people donít have it. Iím sorry, thatís the way I see it."

Hymel said if the law passes the only thing he would ask of the Parish Council is that airboats meet a certain decibel threshold while operating.

"Get the noise levels down to a certain decibel or just donít run. I mean itís just that simple," Hymel said. "I really believe with the technology they have out there these days, they can do something about the noise and it may cost these guys a few bucks to do that."

Matherne said when Jefferson Parish became the first parish to regulate airboat travel he knew some airboat operators who went out of business. He said the business is already difficult enough without adding regulations.

"[W]e have motors breaking down all the time and $4 a gallon for gas," Matherne said. "It seems like a lot of money until you add up the expense. Youíve gotta to pay so much a year for a lease, $20,000 for insurance and advertisements and then the captainís salaries. It adds up."

If passed Senate Bill 648 would become effective August 1, 2012.

St. Charles Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne said he rece out about the bill and was unwilling to comment until he explored it further.

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