Residents, city still battling over park property

03/24/2014 4:17 PM

03/24/2014 4:19 PM

The city’s legal skirmish with residents over a bridge crossing at the new Oliver Nature Park heads into mediation April 3 and -- if talks fail again – back into district court.

Undaunted by a judge’s refusal to block the opening of the bridge in January, 13 residents of the Estates at Creekwood have reapplied for a temporary injunction, contending the bridge has – as feared – funneled throngs of Oliver Park visitors into a greenbelt of trails and a small lake that the neighborhood claims as its own.

The lawsuit said bridge traffic has increased the neighborhood’s liability risks and “destroyed the sanctity of the gated community and the quiet possession and enjoyment of the plaintiffs property.”

The plaintiffs own the eight properties that front on the southern shore of the lake, which is owned by the Estates, a gated community within the Arbors of Creekwood subdivison.

At the center is a dispute over who has property rights to the greenbelt between the city park and the Estates residents, based on differing interpretations of deeds and other documents dating back to 1995 when the neighborhood was formed.

The city contends the developer at the time conveyed the greenbelt property to the city, which has counted those 13 acres as part of the 80-acre Oliver Park at 1650 Matlock Road. The city plans to extend the Walnut Creek Linear Park main trail through that greenbelt, merging with the existing 5-foot-wide trail and expanding it to match the main trail’s 12-foot width. The 100-foot-long bridge would provide a crucial connection between Oliver Park and the linear park, the city contends.

In the park master plan, the main trail would continue eastward to Joe Pool Lake.

“The city firmly believes it is doing nothing more than exercising its right to develop a public trail system on public-controlled property,” said City Attorney Allen Taylor. “We respectfully disagree with some of the neighborhood’s residents’ interpretation of their ownership claims.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, William Brotherton of Highland Village in Denton County, said the lots that contain the greenbelt were conveyed to the Estates of Creekwood homeowners association.

“Our position is that the city is absolutely wrong,” Brotherton said. “The trail was intended for the use of the residents of the community, not the general public.”

Judge Dana Womack of the 348th District Court in Fort Worth denied the residents’ first application for a temporary injunction the day before the grand opening of Oliver Nature Park on Jan. 25. She didn’t elaborate on her reasons from the bench.

The residents refiled for the injunction Feb. 27, this time naming three senior city officials in their individual and official capacities – City Manager Clayton Chandler, community services director Shelly Lanners, and park board president Harold Bell – as co-defendants along with the city of Mansfield.

Womack set a hearing on the injunction for April 23 but ordered the two parties first to meet with a mediator April 3 to try working out their differences.

“At this point I’m not very optimistic about mediation,” Jack Muhlbeier, one of the plaintiffs, said Sunday. “I don’t know where the city is on this.”

City officials referred questions about the litigation to Taylor.

The city, in its filed response to the lawsuit, contends that both the city and its co-defendant officials have legal immunity from being sued, saying the plaintiffs’ argument against immunity defense seemed “magically conjured in a vacuum.”

The city’s plea also contended the residents don’t have legal standing to sue if the homeowners association owns the greenbelt property. Brotherton countered that the covenants of the Estates give individual homeowners the right to sue for reasons that include challenges to property ownership.

If the injunction is granted, the next step could be a trial to establish a permanent determination of property rights.

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