Jeff Davis County, Fort Davis Water Supply Corp. and Fort Davis ISD settle years-long property dispute

Jeff Davis County, Fort Davis Water Supply Corp. and Fort Davis ISD settle years-long property dispute

Water infrastructure, including water wells and groundwater storage tanks, on Urquhart Avenue in Fort Davis have been the subject of a years-long property dispute between the school district, county and Fort Davis Water Supply Corporation, which operates the utilities. The parties reached a settlement agreement late last month. Staff photo by Mary Cantrell.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — A 2019 lawsuit brought against Jeff Davis County and the Fort Davis Water Supply Corporation by Fort Davis ISD over the ownership of Urquhart Avenue and extraction and storage of groundwater on the property settled out of court in January, marking the end of a lengthy legal battle that sowed division among public officials. 

“We are very glad it’s over,” said County Judge Curtis Evans. “I want the animosity to be behind us so we can return to a community that always worked together for the betterment of Jeff Davis County.” 

The multifaceted settlement agreement involves a $195,000 payout to the school district, multiple new easements, the dismissal of the lawsuit and the recognition of the Fort Davis Water Supply Corporation (FDWSC), a nonprofit providing water and sewer services to the town of Fort Davis, as the owner of the property and associated utilities. 

In a joint statement agreed upon by all parties, they wrote that they “worked tirelessly to reach a resolution that meets the needs of all involved, particularly the community,” and “are satisfied with the outcome and are looking forward to moving on from this dispute.” 

“The resolution terms include payments to Fort Davis ISD and its corresponding commitment to execute the necessary real estate documents to quiet title to the properties involved and to ensure continued availability of water resources to the public,” the joint statement read.

Superintendent Graydon Hicks — who said the school board was forced to file the lawsuit in 2019 after no progress finding a solution had been made — said he was relieved to see the dispute he tirelessly worked on finally settled, and the school board was ready to move on. “Yes, all of us are glad that it’s over 100%,” said Hicks. “Whether I’m satisfied or not is irrelevant. The [school] board is satisfied.” 

School Board President James Weaver, who has served on the board for the past four years and seen the protracted legal battle play out, said throughout the process the school board’s goal was to ensure they were in compliance with the law, and now that the rightful owner of the property is decided upon, they were free to focus on other pressing matters. “It’s been a long, long ordeal, and we’re just ready to move on down the road and focus on our kids and staff and other things and get our mind off a lawsuit,” Weaver said. 

“I don’t know that anybody wins in a small town when you have a lawsuit,” he added. “But at the end of the day, we feel like we did what was right, and we did everything we could do to get this resolved.” 

General Manager of the FDWSC Janet Adams declined to comment on the settlement outside of the joint statement 

West Urquhart Avenue

The lawsuit brought into question the ownership of West Urquhart Avenue, a 70-by-280 foot portion of the road located southwest of the district’s football field that was never heavily trafficked, according to court documents, and referred to in the past as “beer can alley.” 

Today, the site holds significant water infrastructure: three water storage tanks, a generator and a water well, all operated by the FDWSC. The school district has argued that the water supply corporation was “unlawfully granted access” by the county to install the water infrastructure in 2006 when it only held a right-of-way easement for roadway purposes. 

The area is part of a subdivision originally platted in 1888, one that eventually became home to the school district. In 2003, the district purchased land adjacent to Urquhart, therefore giving the district partial ownership of the road, according to legal documents. 

The district brought the suit against the two entities in 2019 to “establish its lawful ownership of the real property, including all improvements, or obtain just compensation for the unlawful, uncompensated taking of its property, including natural resources, by the County and the FDWSC through the unlawful acts of their officials,” according to court documents. The monetary damages the district sought were between $200,000 and $1,000,000. 

A letter written by then County Attorney Teresa Todd included in court documents sheds light on a popular opinion as to why the district brought forth the lawsuit in the first place. She states the dispute began between the FDWSC and the district over its water rates, and spread to include other issues including the water infrastructure on Urquhart Avenue. She argued the property dispute was the cash-strapped district’s way of trying to bring in additional revenue. 

“There were no issues with the use of a portion of Urquhart Avenue for water infrastructure until the summer of 2019, when a shortage of funds led to a new ISD philosophy focused less on community cooperation and more on monetization of school district resources,” Todd wrote. 

Hicks — who has continuously voiced concerns that Fort Davis ISD is facing financial ruin at the hands of the state — and Weaver denied the notion that the lawsuit was motivated by money. In the end, the district will mostly cover its attorney fees with the settlement payout. “We just wanted it all done legally and buttoned up and done correctly,” said Weaver. “We wanted to do our due diligence to make sure that happened, and it had nothing to do with generating funds.” 

The district argued that it cannot legally give the county and FDWSC the land because, as a public school district, it cannot give away tax payer property. “The District does want the citizens of Fort Davis to benefit from the well unlawfully drilled on property owned by the District that it holds in trust for the State of Texas,” court documents state. “But the District cannot simply give away public property interests.” 

The county and FDWSC initially denied the school district’s claims and asserted that Urquhart was — unlike other surrounding roads — never formally closed and vacated, therefore remained the property of the county and theirs to donate to the FDWSC. 

Hicks said there were multiple attempts to settle the property dispute over the years, but the county and the water company “thought the school district should just shut up and be quiet and let them do what they wanted.” 

According to Judge Evans, representatives from the FDWSC approached county commissioners around 2006 because they were receiving warning letters from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that they did not have adequate water storage compared to the number of customers they had. Evans said the water supply corporation wanted to keep the water affordable for customers and asked for the county’s help locating property where they could place a storage tank.

Urquhart Avenue was chosen because it was essentially abandoned, he said, and located close to an existing water supply corporation well — one that existed due to past partnerships with the school district. He said the motive of all of the officials involved at the time, including district administrators, was to keep the town’s water affordable. 

The paperwork required to close the street — making it no longer publicly accessible or required to be maintained by the county — was not completed properly at that time, Evans said. The county officially closed West Urquhart as a county right of way this past December to right the situation.

The settlement agreement

In addition to the road closure and determination that the land and water infrastructure belong to the FDWSC, the county and water supply corporation will each pay $97,500 to the school district — a total of $195,000, which will cover the majority of the attorney fees the district has incurred over the duration of the lawsuit, $198,000, according to Hicks. 

The county budgeted for the settlement payment this fiscal year, according to Evans, and will be paying for the sum with ad valorem tax revenue. Evans said the settlement payment was one of the reasons the county attempted to increase taxes this year. The county’s insurance through the Texas Association of Counties is paying for their legal fees. Evans said it is unclear at this time how that claim may impact the county’s insurance rates. 

The county also agreed to provide the school district with tax collection services for free — a $25,000 annual value — for four years. It’s a $100,000 revenue loss for the county, and a $100,000 revenue gain for the district. Hicks said the district intends to use the additional funds on building maintenance, vehicles, salaries, stipends and UIL fees.

As a part of the settlement, the FDWSC agreed to apply the same water and sewer rates to the school district as it does to the county for the next 10 years beginning January 2024. Evans denied that the county has ever received special water rates, and said it is subject to increases like every other customer. 

General Manager of the FDWSC Adams declined to comment on whether the $97,500 settlement payment it has to make to the district will cause customer water rates to increase. 

Weaver said the settlement agreement may not be exactly what everyone wanted, but they were terms all the parties could live with, and it was time to finally move on as a community. 

“Fort Davis is such a small place and a tight knit community,” Weaver said. “I go to church with all these people, and I’m good friends with all these people that are in this lawsuit, so it’s just good to have it behind us.”