FAIR OAKS RANCH — In 1973, a development company drilled water wells on and near future homesites across ranchland owned by Ralph Fair Jr.’s family since the 1930s.
Nearly half a century later, as Fair Oaks Ranch has matured into a prized community, those critical resources are at the heart of a water war.
Unlike Wild West disputes of old over the natural resource, hired toughs and ranch crews won’t decide the outcome, but lawyers, courts and possibly condemnation, a government’s most powerful last-resort tool, could.
Recent residents Dr. Vincent and Nancy Caldarola noticed city workers on their land and discovered the town was using well water from the property and maintaining an easement on the utilities with the right to provide water for the community.
The Caldarolas took issue with the city’s position the water and easement were part of deeds passed down over time and in a sale to the municipality in 1997, and made a formal complaint against Fair Oaks Ranch with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
“We were pinched into this situation,” said City Manager Tobin Maples during a recent town-hall meeting on the matter.
Maples said Caldarola contacted him stating that the employees were trespassing and the city owned them royalties. The homeowner made several visits to the city manager’s office over numerous months, officials said.
The city rejected the claims, which led to legal action.
Afterward, Fair Oaks Ranch received an almost verbatim demand from another property owner, said Joe Davis, a lawyer serving as special counsel to the town on the dispute along with Rhonda Jolley.
All told, about 37 families with wells on their land were approached by the Caldarolas to join the cause, according to the city.
Nancy Caldarola, reached at her husband’s San Antonio surgical practice, referred questions to him and took a message. By press time he hadn’t responded.
Meanwhile, the city executed a deep-dive examination of its rights on each well and easement it considers part of its water system. In most cases, it says there’s solid footing, but also found some areas which were traditionally understood but not necessarily explicit in documentation.
TCEQ told city lawyers it wouldn’t interfere with land or title issues.
“Our legal counsel advised us to move forward very swiftly with communications to property owners, most of whom have not taken these actions” against the city, said Mayor Garry Manitzas at the town-hall session. “I can’t think of any issue that has an impact on a perception of a community or our property values than a stable water supply.”
Development was launched by the ranch landowners in the 1970s to include a wastewater and water utility.
Before the lots were sold, easements were executed for the rights to use the wells and the right to access the wells, Manitzas said. In some instances, those rights are shown on the plats and on others in the deed restrictions.
Some of the documentation by Fair and others in the early days of the community “was less than good and lot of that has caused cracks that are now having to be dealt with,” Davis said.
Later, the water went to one private company, with sanitation to another, but became consolidated again in 1997, when the city bought the water-treatment facilities, water storage, main lines, and customers’ account information for $4.1 million.
Municipal leaders believed that had sealed the deal.
Yet, when the challenge emerged more than two decades later, Jolley began title research on each property. She found a total of 42 wells, five of which are city owned, and 107 sanitary easement lots.
When affected landowners were informed of the dilemma, responses varied ranging from they didn’t think they owned the water rights to the “hullabaloo” raised by the controversy made them hesitant to make a new agreement.
Still others said they were unaware, but made a comparison to finding treasure in their attic for which they might be paid.
While many residents did sign papers affirming Fair Oaks Ranch’s right to easements and water from their property, some say the town’s argument doesn’t hold water. The holdouts have until Jan. 24 to accept terms or face condemnation proceedings for access and groundwater rights, officials said.
In a December letter to residents, the mayor said condemnation is costly and the amount will be passed on to water-system ratepayers.
“The city believes we already purchased this asset back in 1997 for $4.1 million,” Manitzas said. “It wasn’t until the past couple of years that that debt was paid off. Those on the water system have seen that debt payment itemized on your bills for years. If we have to buy this asset again, it’s going to impact us.”
To date, the city has spent about $130,000 on the legal matter and anticipates costs could go much higher if agreements are not reached and eminent domain is used to secure the water supply.
Maples, in a late December interview with LOCAL Community News, wouldn’t comment on negotiations and said it was still unknown what amount would trickle down to ratepayers’ water bills if the situation isn’t resolved easily.
“I believe the city is in a very good position,” he said.