Judge steps down from dilapidated Arlington apartment case

05/20/2014 1:36 PM

05/20/2014 2:07 PM

The fate of the troubled La Joya apartment complex in Arlington is still in limbo after state District Judge Wade Birdwell suddenly removed himself from the case late Monday.

In a letter to attorneys representing the city and the investor group that owns the property on New York Avenue, Birdwell said he decided to recuse himself because he is acquainted with Councilwoman Lana Wolff, creating a possible conflict, stating that his son and her grandson play in baseball tournaments together.

Wolff appeared at a hearing last week to determine whether the city can go forward to demolish the complex, which was declared to be dangerous last year. The owners sued, seeking an injunction to stop the demolition.

In his letter to attorneys, Birdwell wrote that when Wolff appeared at the hearing, she looked familiar, but he said he didn’t put two and two together until he saw her at a baseball tournament in Cleburne last weekend.

“I simply did not make the connection between Councilwoman Wolff and Grandmother Wolff until I saw her this weekend,” Birdwell wrote. “… She greeted me as ‘Judge’ and then immediately commented that she could not talk to me. The proverbial light bulb then went off and I have spent the weekend trying to determine whether there was any way that I could retain this case and avoid the possibility of the parties having to re-present their evidence and briefing to another judge.

“It goes without saying that there was absolutely no discussion of this case with either Councilwoman Wolff or Grandmother Wolff,” Birdwell wrote.

Wolff could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Administrative Judge David Evans will have to assign the case to another judge.

Arlington shut down the apartment complex, which a municipal judge had declared dangerous and substandard last year because of code violations including leaking raw sewage, roaches and faulty wiring.

The council voted in October to set aside nearly $2 million in natural gas revenue to tear down the nine-building complex and move its tenants.

After taking control of the east Arlington property in January, a California investment group sued the city to stop the demolition.

According to the suit, 1707 New York Avenue LLC held detailed discussions with the city about its plans to renovate and repair the complex to bring it up to Arlington’s housing codes. The owners also reportedly paid $59,000 in utility bills.

Mark Forman, chief operating officer for La Joya Village, said the owners refurbished a unit with new flooring, plumbing, appliances and other improvements to show what a newly renovated apartment would look like. But he criticized Arlington for ignoring development plans and said the owners have a plan to do a complete makeover for $1.8 million. There is also $400,000 set aside for asbestos removal, he said.

In court documents, however, Arlington called the owners’ estimated $1.7 million repair plan “woefully inadequate,” adding that it does not include provisions for asbestos removal. The city also argued that 1707 New York Avenue LLC bought the property with full knowledge of the planned demolition.

Staff writer Susan Schrock contributed to this report, which includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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