Texas Supreme Court Casts Doubt on City Property Rights Cases

Court ruling says city-appointed boards cannot determine fate of nuisance properties

A Texas Supreme Court ruling has attorneys and city officials around the state scrambling for a new way to deal with nuisance properties.

State lawmakers had granted cities the power to speed up nuisance cases with city-appointed boards to make decisions, but the July 1 ruling decided the arrangement violates the state Constitution.

The case arose from the 2002 demolition of a Dallas home ordered by a city-appointed panel. Officials said the home at 6017 Hudson St. near Ross and Greenville avenues had many code enforcement citations.

But next-door neighbor Gladys Callado said she still felt the city made a mistake at the time.

"I was surprised, since the owner started fixing the house," she said. "They have new roof, new windows, and a new door, and I was surprised when the city come and tear it down."

An appellate court ruling said the city needed to verify the condition of the house on the day of demolition, but the Texas Supreme Court ruling went farther than that.

Attorney Julia Pendery said the Supreme Court found that the original determination of a nuisance must be made by an independent court and judge and not by a city-appointed panel.

"Property rights are so important -- it's a constitutional right -- that the entity that's trying to take away the right can't be the same as the people supposed to be protecting the rights," she said.

"The implications are pretty broad on anything affecting a property right that a city wants to do," Pendery said.

She said the decisions of many other city-appointed boards in every Texas city could now be questioned.

"It could throw a lot of things into turmoil," she said.

With the ruling, the city owes the property owner $75,000 plus interest for demolishing the house, but Dallas could still request a rehearing at the Supreme Court.

Councilman Tennell Atkins has supported swift demolition of nuisance properties in Dallas.

"I don't think we made a mistake," he said. "I think we did it according to what the law said."

Now Atkins said he worries nuisances will fester longer in neighborhoods with more red tape.

"I bet the community will say, 'We have a house sitting there for five years. Now it's going to take 10 years.' What do we do now?" he said.

Atkins said Dallas must find a new approach, but Pendery said it will likely require more appearances before a judge.

"That's going to be a big problem for cities to figure out -- how they can handle this without getting sucked into court every single time?" she said.

The City Council will hear details about the ruling from city attorneys in a closed session Wednesday.

City Attorney Tom Perkins declined to comment on the ruling before the council meeting.

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