The pedestrian bridge at Oliver Nature Park remains closed as the city and several Estates of Creekwood residents prepare for a courtroom showdown this month, which could end with it being demolished.
The 348th District Court granted a partial summary judgment in October, saying the disputed lots belong to the homeowners association, a major victory for residents in the gated neighborhood who have fought to keep the land behind their homes from becoming part of a citywide trail. Other requests from both sides were denied in the hearing.
The full trial began Dec. 3.
Privacy and security were the main concerns for the plaintiffs, who say they didn’t feel comfortable in their own yards and swimming pools when the trail suddenly opened to the public in 2014.
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Though a temporary injunction finally closed the bridge in February, it remains to be seen what will happen in the trial or future appeals.
“This has been a hard-fought battle for five years and I don’t think it’s going to end solely because of this ruling,” said Bill Warren, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It was always about whether or not this park would remain part of a gated community.”
Mansfield maintains that it owns the lots, according to a statement released last month.
“The city believes that its position as to ownership of the [land] is well founded and the city will be advancing and maintaining this position through both the trial and appellate court process,” the city said in a statement.
At issue is the land that backs up to the Estates of Creekwood neighborhood where there’s a scenic pond with a meandering trail going around it. For years, residents believed the trail, legally referred to as the R2 lots in the court case, was common area property that belonged to the homeowners association.
That all changed about five years ago when Mansfield started planning the Oliver Nature Park and the next phase of the Walnut Creek Linear Park trail.
The city believed the R2 lots had been conveyed to the Community Foundation of Texas when the Estates of Creekwood was being developed in 1995. The expectation was that the lots would be donated for city park land in the future.
The lots were conveyed to the city of Mansfield in late December 2012 and in the spring of 2013, Mansfield built a pedestrian bridge across Walnut Creek, connecting the R2 lots to the Oliver Nature Park, in essence making that 4-foot wide trail part of the city’s Walnut Creek Linear Park.
The expectation was that in future phases of Oliver Nature Park, a second bridge would be built across Walnut Creek continuing the trail east toward Texas 360.
Jack Muhlbeier, a plaintiff in the case, said the opening of the bridge changed the character of the once private gated neighborhood. In 2014, residents filed a lawsuit against saying that the HOA owned the R2 lots and it shouldn’t be a public park. The case bounced around in the courts for several years as the plaintiffs remained determined to prove ownership of the lots.
“They went from being in a gated community to having essentially no privacy at all in their back yards,” Warren said. “All of the sudden when you have hundreds of people walking around back there, kids felt uncomfortable, parents felt uncomfortable. It’s just weird when a bunch of strangers can walk around behind your home.”
Muhlbeier got so frustrated with the bridge that he sold his house at a loss and moved to Keller so he could have privacy again. But he still remains a plaintiff hoping to recoup the value he lost.
“I’m going to watch them tear that bridge down,” Muhlbeier said. “I’m going to watch them explain to their citizens why they spent $400,000 to go across the creek to nowhere. They’ll be paying for the lost value of every home in that HOA.”
He contends that the city knew there were problems with the title on the R2 lots all along.
That’s been the central argument in the case, Mansfield officials said.
“The city has maintained the position that the R2 lots were conveyed prior to Dec. 12, 1995, when the developer prepared a deed instrument conveying those lots to the Community Foundation of Texas for the benefit of the city of Mansfield,” the city said.
The plaintiffs and the HOA reached a settlement deal where the R2 lots will be conveyed from the HOA to the plaintiffs when the lawsuit concludes, Warren said.
Still, the city could appeal the case again, making the situation drag on even longer.
The Mansfield City Council has approved a construction contract to extend the trail east from Oliver Nature Center to Philip Thompson Soccer Complex and ultimately to Texas 360.
It’s unclear how that trail will connect to the existing trail because of the pending lawsuit.