After years of legal battles, Mansfield will likely have to close the bridge that connects the Oliver Nature Park to the narrow trail behind the Estates of Creekwood neighborhood.
But the fight over ownership of the heavily wooded land and potential damages Mansfield will have to pay after concerns arose about the safety and security of residents could drag on much longer.
City Manager Clayton Chandler confirmed that this case will go to full trial. Mansfield estimates it will cost $800,000 to pay for the litigation.
For now, Estates of Creekwood homeowners whose houses back up to the trail are celebrating a temporary victory after the Texas Supreme Court declined to hear the city’s appeal of the temporary injunction last month, clearing the way for the bridge to be closed.
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Bill Warren, attorney for the plaintiffs, said he expects a mandate to close the bridge by late January or early February.
“We’ve always believed that the property was owned by the HOA,” Warren said. “We’ve now received some vindication. We hope that the trial court will be guided by that opinion in making future rulings in the case.”
City Attorney Allen Taylor said the city was disappointed with the court’s decision but it didn’t come as a surprise. The state’s highest court prefers not to hear appeals that deal with temporary orders.
“They don’t have time to look at everything that comes up,” he said.
World turned upside down
The disputed property is a scenic oasis. A serene pond is surrounded by lush trees and vegetation. A hawk keeps watch over the field. A heron perches in a tree looking for a meal in the pond. Ducks frolic on the shore. Several million-dollar homes overlook the vista.
A 5-foot-wide concrete trail surrounds the area. It was built in the mid-1990s, when the Estates of Creekwood neighborhood was built. For years, the trail was used by the residents of that neighborhood and the adjoining Arbors of Creekwood subdivision.
Everything changed in 2013 when Mansfield developed the Oliver Nature Park just north of the creek. As part of that larger project, Mansfield built a bridge over Walnut Creek to connect Oliver to the half-mile trail.
Residents in the gated neighborhood said their world was turned upside down, as suddenly the public could park at Olive Nature Park, take a short stroll across the bridge and access the trail and pond behind their homes.
Jack Muhlbeier, one of the plaintiffs suing the city, said he sold his house at a 25 percent loss and moved to Keller, leaving behind a sports court and swimming pool.
“I went from having one of the nicest lots and back yards in the Metroplex to having a city park behind me,” he said. “We were a gated community. If you have the back door to your gated community wide open, you’re not a gated community anymore. And really, there was no reason for it. If people would have done the right thing, this would never have happened.”
He saw children swimming in the pond, adults fishing.
“I had to worry continuously about people getting into the lake and drowning,” Muhlbeier said. “We were not allowed by the city to put up a fence or barrier.”
Most of the homes backing up to the trail have swimming pools and other backyard features that are now in full view of the public walking on the trails.
“A lot of the people moved there with their children because it was safe,” Warren said. “Now, strangers could just walk along and see them. They felt uncomfortable. The park essentially turned all that on its head.”
The neighborhood was on edge in November when a man was caught trying to break into a vehicle in the Estates of Creekwood. When the homeowner confronted him, the armed suspect fired shots but missed before fleeing on foot.
At issue is whether the city of Mansfield and the Mansfield Park Facilities Development Corp. own the land where that trail is or if it’s owned by the Estates of Creekwood homeowners association.
Residents like Muhlbeier are suing Mansfield, the MPFDC and the HOA to prove that the city doesn’t own the lots and never should have been able to build the bridge or incorporate that land as part of a city park.
The lawsuit also contends that the city failed to follow its own permitting process when building the bridge. In addition, the suit contends that the bridge doesn’t meet the requirements needed to build in the flood plain.
The Walnut Creek Linear Trail
For decades, the city has been planning to build a linear trail following Walnut Creek from one end of the city limits to the other. Right now, the Walnut Creek Linear Trail starts in Town Park, heads east to Katherine Rose Memorial Park and then connects to McKnight Park East and West.
The trail picks back up at the Oliver Nature Center on Matlock Road with a new bridge over Walnut Creek. That bridge connects to the trails that are in dispute. Plans called for Mansfield to continue the trail east to the Philip Thompson Soccer Complex, then go under Texas 360 to the city’s border with Grand Prairie at Joe Pool Lake.
Several city officials, including Chandler and Shelly Lanners, deputy city manager, and Mayor David Cook were questioned by Warren about their involvement with the bridge development.
Lanners, who was the director of community services, which included parks, testified that the disputed trail is part of the city’s trail system.
“When you cross the bridge to the south side of Walnut Creek, that is part of the Walnut Creek Linear Trail,” Lanners said in her deposition from December 2015.
She went on to say that the city had plans to connect that trail to the citywide trails since she started working for Mansfield in 2000.
The possible conflict of interest
Two current city officials have or had homes in Knightsbridge, which is an exclusive gated neighborhood just east of the Estates of Creekwood and Arbors of Creekwood. The development of about 10 homes includes its own easement to connect it to the disputed trail and bridge. The unmarked easement has wrought-iron fences on both sides and goes between a vacant lot and a large home.
Cook, who was elected mayor in 2008, bought a lot on Piccadilly Court in Knightsbridge in January 2012 and built a home there, according to his deposition. He moved in to the 4,774-square-foot home in February 2013, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District. He sold the home in March 2017, when the appraised value was more than $1 million, according to TAD.
During his questioning, plaintiffs’ attorney Warren presented an Arlington Today article from Jan. 19, 2014, that featured the Cook family and its home. In the article, Cook said that access to the Oliver Nature Park and linear trail system were perks of living in the home.
When asked about it, Cook said he doesn’t recall making that statement.
Warren then presented evidence that showed that the mayor had talked about a bridge from Oliver Nature Park across Walnut Creek in December 2011.
“And did you disclose to the other members of City Council that you were purchasing a lot at the same time discussing this possible future trail connection to Arbors of Creekwood?” Warren asked during the deposition.
Cook responded, “I don’t know. I don’t know if I did or not. I mean, it--it was probably, you know, just in casual conversation. But, no, did I fill out a disclosure? No.”
Cook declined to comment for this article, saying there’s pending litigation.
City council member Larry Broseh combined two lots in the Knightsbridge neighborhood and built a 6,172-square-foot home on them in January 2013, according to the Tarrant Appraisal District.
The home also appraises for more than $1 million, according to TAD.