Fort Worth Court of Appeals holds one city was not entitled to a plea to the jurisdiction in condemnation suit brought by adjoining city

Town of Westlake, Texas v. City of Southlake, 02-21-00241-CV  (Tex. App. – Fort Worth, Dec. 23, 2021)

This is an interlocutory appeal from the denial of the Town of Westlake’s plea to the jurisdiction in a case where the City of Southlake filed condemnation proceedings against the Town of Westlake.  The Fort Worth court of appeals affirmed the denial. [Comment: warning, this is a long opinion – 49 pages.]

The City of Southlake moved to condemn approximately 1400 feet of land owned by the Town of Westlake. In Southlake, a residential development was principally within Southlake, but abutted the boundary with Westlake. Immediately inside Westlake’s eastern town limit is a right of way owned and maintained by Westlake that abuts the lanes of Farm-to-Market Road 1938, but the actual road is owned by the State of Texas. The construction of the present configuration of FM 1938 was a cooperative effort of Southlake, Westlake, Keller, and Tarrant County.  Westlake opposed for years the developer’s requests for access across Westlake’s ROW as only one access to the development currently exists and the developer needed two. Westlake claims that the present condemnation action brought by Southlake is an attempt by Southlake to use its powers of condemnation to gain access to FM 1938 that the developer has not been able to negotiate. Southlake followed the condemnation procedures outlined in chapter 21 of the Texas Property Code and the commissioners awarded Westlake $22,000 for the condemnation. Westlake filed a motion to dismiss which was denied. Then, just before the award was filed with the district court, Westlake filed a plea to the jurisdiction in the district court. The court noted the plea was not a plea, but should have been a motion opposing the taking and denied the plea.  Westlake filed this interlocutory appeal in response. Southlake filed a motion to dismiss at the court of appeals level.

With regard to Southlake’s motion to dismiss, the trial court’s jurisdiction was triggered once the commissioners’ findings were filed, even if Westlake “jumped the gun” and filed the plea before the commissioners’ filing.  There is no consequence for filing early. As a result, the matter is properly before the appellate court. Next, regarding Westlake’s plea, Westlake first argues no waiver of immunity exists under §251.001 of the Local Government Code, however the court noted the language allows condemnation regardless of whether the property is already public or private, whether it is inside the city or outside, and possesses safeguards to prevent abuses. Because the statute allows condemnation of public property, it must, therefore include a waiver of immunity for the owning entity. Comparing the langue in §251.001 to similar provisions of the Utility Code (which the Texas Supreme Court previously ruled constitute a waiver of immunity), the court held immunity is waived for Westlake.  While case law states that when one governmental entity is condemning property owned by another governmental entity, the condemning entity must establish the “paramount importance” standards (i.e. it has a public need greater and will not destroy the public nature).  However, the paramount importance doctrine is not jurisdictional. With regards to Westlake’s argument that § 311.002 of the Transportation Code (giving cities exclusive control over streets and highways) the record has not been established enough to make the determination of whether the condemnation will interfere with such streets (since Westlake owns only the adjoining ROW). The record was also not sufficiently developed to establish whether Southlake could establish a valid public purpose.  As a result, the plea was within the trial court’s discretion to deny.

If you would like to read this opinion click here.  Panel consists of Justices Birdwell, Bassel, and Womack.  Memorandum opinion by Justice Bassel.

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