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2012-11-15

Federal judge rules in favor of county

By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor

A federal judge recently dismissed a lawsuit filed against Bandera County by a Lakehills resident.
In a summary judgment rendered Thursday, Nov. 8, Senior District Judge Harry Lee Hudspeth of the United States District Court for the Western District of Texas in San Antonio not only found in favor of the county, but also ruled that plaintiffs, John and Helen Faircloth, must pay court costs. Depending on what is included, costs could be in excess of $100,000, according to one report.
"I'm very pleased with Judge Hudspeth's decision," said County Attorney John Payne. "This is great news for the county. The county successfully defended itself and prevailed against this particular lawsuit. Hopefully, this will send a message to people that frivolous litigation will not be tolerated."
Earlier, Faircloth and his legal team had filed litigation against the county and the Bandera County Sheriff's Office. The civil lawsuit stemmed from the Faircloths' claims that deputies had repeatedly failed to protect the Faircloths' property, including a dry lakebed and island in front of their residence on Pebble Beach Drive, from trespassers.
According to Hudspeth's ruling, the Faircloths called the BCSO 77 times with various complaints, with officers responding 68 times. Deputies issued criminal trespass warnings in eight of the 21 trespassing complaints.
It must be noted, however, that extent of ownership of properties at the lake has always been surrounded by controversy.
At some point, BCSO learned that the Bexar-Medina-Atacosa Counties Water Control and Improvement District (BMA) claimed ownership of the lakebed and island. In 2007, a resident of Medina Lake complained to the BCSO that Faircloth had erected a barbed wire fence in the dry lakebed. At that time, a deputy advised Faircloth he could not erect a fence on the lakebed without permission of the BMA.
In his response to the lawsuit, Michael Shaunessy, attorney for Bandera County from the Texas Association of Counties, claimed that the Faircloths had failed to establish ownership of the land in question.
The Faircloths purchased their property in 1987 from Thomas and Lola Perks, who had acquired the property via two quitclaim deeds from previous owners. The property's original owners, Joseph and Sophie Haegelin, had purportedly conveyed 946 acres of land to the Medina Valley Irrigation Company (MVIC), the private company that created Medina Lake.
While there is no record of this conveyance, a judgment against the Haegelins has been recorded in the US District Court for the Western District of Texas. This judgment, which awards fee simple ownership of 946 acres to MVIC, includes acreage in the western part of the property, a portion of which is the Faircloths' property.
The couple also sued the county using a "takings claim," alleging that the BCSO "wrongfully permitted trespassing on their property by the public." According to Shaunessy, a takings claim cannot be predicated on the BCSO's failure to act because the State of Texas does not recognize a takings claim for failure to act.
Hudspeth agreed with Shaunessy's rebuttals.
Additionally, Hudspeth ruled there was no evidence pointing to another claim - that the county "required (the Faircloths) to permit" trespassing on their property.
Rather, Hudspeth pointed out that BCSO deputies had responded to the Faircloths' complaints of trespassing on numerous occasions and issued several criminal trespass warnings.
In conclusion, Hudspeth wrote: "The summary judgment evidence shows that there is no genuine issue of material fact, that the Defendants are entitled to judgment in their favor as a matter of law."
In an interview on Nov. 8, Shaunessy lauded the decision, noting Hudspeth's clear reasoning that led to his ruling.
"Mr. Faircloth had complained about trespassers and the sheriff's office had attempted to address the problems. Perhaps the outcome was not what Mr. Faircloth had wanted, but the deputies' actions were to the fullest extent as allowed by law," Shaunessy said. "There is only so much we can do by law."
Shaunessy also referred to the uncertainly of ownership of property along Medina Lake because MVIC did not consistently acquire interests in the land that would eventually be flooded to form Medina Lake. "There is uncertainty about who owns what," he said. "In the past, Mr. Faircloth entered into litigation with his neighbors regarding ownership of the island and lots."
Shaunessy also noted that the Faircloths chose not to participate in a former settlement with BMA regarding property around the lake.
He continued, "Bandera County tried mightily to address Mr. Faircloth's concerns, but sometimes when someone says, 'You're not listening to me,' they really mean, 'You don't agree with me'."