I have represented developers and investors in Texas real estate developments for over thirty years. I have been blessed with clients who are fabulous people to work with, and Texas development law is always challenging and interesting. There is one thing that is guaranteed to make both my clients and I tear our hair out however: arbitrary and capricious municipal governments and code enforcement personnel. They are not all that way, by any means: most Texas city government officials and personnel are highly professional. However, if you practice development law in Texas long enough, you will find that the few bad apples cause you more effort than all the others combined.
There is a game some municipal governments play called “Yes, that’s what we promised then, but it’s different now”. The case of Continental Homes of Texas, L.P. v. City of San Antonio, decided recently by the Texas Fourth Court of Civil Appeals in San Antonio, illustrates what I mean. In 2002, the owners of a ranch, (located outside the San Antonio city limits but within its extra-territorial jurisdiction), received a “Vested Rights Permit” in return for giving the City a parcel of land for a gas metering station. The Permit had an effective date of 1991 and basically said that the ranch would be subject only to City ordinances and rules as of 1991, and not any passed thereafter. Importantly, the Permit had no expiration date.
In 2003, the City passed a Tree Preservation Ordinance, which required developers to, among other things, request a permit from the City Arborist before cutting trees, and to perform mitigation (i.e., plant new trees) if trees were going to be removed. In 2005, Continental bought part of the original ranch, and submitted a Master Development Plan to the City. The Plan was approved, but in a side letter, the City told Continental that Continental’s Master Tree Stand Delineation was rejected, and further noted that the project will be subject to the City’s Tree Preservation ordinance. In 2006, while Continental was clearing at the site, it was served with a temporary restraining order obtained by the City, stopping all work on the grounds that Continental was violating the Tree Preservation Ordinance.
The City argued that the Vested Rights Permit had become “dormant”! The trial court decided for the City. The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court decision, and quite rightly held that the Vested Rights Permit controlled, and since the City’s tree ordinance was passed after the date of the Vested Rights Permit, the tree ordinance did not apply to this property. Appropriately, the City had to pay Continental’s attorney’s fees. If I were a San Antonio taxpayer, I would be furious that my tax dollars financed a suit like this!