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'A Great Result' — Lakeside Property Owners Celebrate As GBRA Case Trickles Forward

The court has already restricted access to certain parts of the lakes due to the risk of another dam collapse. Those restrictions will remain in place.
Dominic Anthony Walsh | Texas Public Radio
The court has already restricted access to certain parts of the lakes due to the risk of another dam collapse. Those restrictions will remain in place.

Judge Stephen Ables handed down the first major decision Thursday in a case against a river authority in Texas’ southeast Hill Country. About 280 plaintiffs can move ahead in their lawsuit against the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) over its plan to drain four lakes and its lack of maintenance to six dams.

After dams at Lake Wood and Lake Dunlap collapsed, the river authority announced a plan to drain the remaining lakes out of concerns for public safety. The lakeside property owners argued their land would lose value — and they already have, with some property values dropping by about a third, according to local government assessments. 

Plaintiff attorney and property owner Douglas Sutter called the ruling a “great result.” 

He argued that drops in property values linked to GBRA’s lack of maintenance are an unconstitutional “taking,” similar to a government using eminent domain to build a road over someone’s property without compensating them. 

“The regulations say ‘the dam owner shall maintain, operate, repair, replace and modify the dams,’ and starting last May after Dunlap failed, they quit all maintenance on the dams. They have not even touched those dams to maintain them in over a year now,” he said. “So, that's what caused the diminution or reduction in property values, and that is the loss. That's basically the nucleus of our lawsuit.”

While the core claim survives, several others do not. The court ruled that GBRA was immune from other causes of action, including an accusation that the authority had created a public nuisance. 

Judge Ables indicated during the hearing that he wanted a higher court to work out the immunity claims. GBRA officials will appeal the core ruling allowing the lawsuit to proceed, while Sutter will appeal the decision around the peripheral causes of action. 

A spokesperson for GBRA said no one was available for an interview. In a written statement, the authority emphasized that safety is its top concern, saying “these dams pose a life-threatening risk to anyone within the prohibited and restricted unsafe zones.”

The rulings will be appealed to the fourth circuit in San Antonio. GBRA warned the appellate process could extend into 2021, but Sutter said he has confidence that the case will move quickly because it involves a governmental agency. 

In November, some lakeside residents will see a new property tax initiative on their ballot. If passed, the tax will raise revenue to help repair some of the dams. GBRA has expressed support for this approach. 

Dominic Anthony Walsh can be reached at Dominic@TPR.org and on Twitter at @_DominicAnthony.

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