State to city: 'Safeguard this park for outdoor recreation use'
The state body that governs public parks that receive grant funding says the city of Gonzales’ use of J.B. Wells Park as a long-term RV park is in violation of the agreement under which the city received grant funds, and the state wants the city to implement “a policy to safeguard this park for outdoor recreation use.”
That new policy is expected to be presented to the City Council at its 6 p.m. meeting Monday, Nov. 5.
But for those who think the city should not be in the RV business and want the city park reserved only for recreational visitors rather than oilfield workers, don’t expect any major changes.
To be sure, the draft of the new policy is expected to meet the requirements of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), but the state agency appears to be giving the city as much flexibility as it can in adhering to the standards set forth in the project agreement executed when the city received $500,000 for J.B. Wells Park in 2001.
“I have had two conversations with city employees and I sent a letter to the city manager on Oct. 16 asking the city to adhere to the guidelines of the grant agreement which state that the park should be used for outdoor recreation,” says Dana Lagarde, parks grants manager for TPWD. “The city has agreed to put a policy in place requiring visitors to check in and out within a specified period of time. We did not dictate a 14-day use, but would like the elected officials to do what they feel is in the best interest of their citizens and community.”
Gonzales city attorney Jackie Williamson has been tasked with drafting an RV policy for Independence Park and J.B. Wells Park that will be presented to the City Council.
In response to an open records request to TPWD, Lagarde released the context of correspondence she received from Gonzales city manager Allen Barnes which read, in part:
“On Nov. 5, our City Council will pass a resolution establishing a length of stay policy at all city-owned RV parks. Essentially, the policy will allow RVs to stay one month at a time. When the month is up, if we do not have a event at the facility in which we will need slots, the current tenants will be allowed to check in immediately. In the event we have a need for additional spaces, the tenant will be advised they need to find another park. We will reserve our RV slots at Independence Park for short-time (14 days or less) use,” Barnes told Lagarde in the email. He also acknowledged that Lagarde “needed a written response from me concerning our telephone conversation of last week.”
“I spoke with [Allen] Barnes addressing our concerns,” Lagarde confirms. “As long as there are no long-term agreements in place, others are given the opportunity to use the facility and the site is being maintained properly, we do not have a problem with customers returning for additional short-term stays.”
But, anticipating some resistance from residents opposed to the RV park continuing as it has for the past two years, Lagarde says, “I would suggest that citizens who are interested in voicing their opinions on the upcoming policy, attend the city council meeting.”
It was Oct. 12 when Lagarde made an unannounced site visit to J.B. Wells Park in response to an email from “a concerned citizen that J.B. Wells Park is not being used for its intended purpose.”
Lagarde’s inspection revealed some violations of the contract between TPWD and the city.
“From this site visit and per our phone conversation [on Oct. 16], it appears that some of the RV campsites may [be] being used for long-term housing rather than outdoor recreation use,” Lagarde told Barnes in an email. “Such use is prohibited per the signed project agreement.”
TPWD funded a four-year, $500,000 outdoor recreation grant to the city in 2001 for a laundry list of things at J.B. Wells, including funding some of the RV sites, acquisition of land and development of the park, Lagarde says. The grant was a 50% matching, reimbursement grant. Therefore, because of the grant funding, TPWD’s jurisdiction at J.B.Wells Park is in perpetuity.
“The general provisions of the project agreement for which fund assistance is provided states that the participant agrees that the property described in the project shall not be converted to other than public recreation use and shall be maintained for public recreation in perpetuity,” Lagarde reminded Barnes in an Oct. 16 email.
“In order to remedy this situation, we are asking that the city of Gonzales put into place a policy to safeguard this park for outdoor recreation use,” Lagarde told Barnes.
In addition to violations related to RV sites, Lagarde expressed concerns about equipment and trailers being stored on site about which she requested clarification. She also forwarded a copy of the post-completion responsibilities to Barnes to ensure he is aware of what TPWD expects of the city as a grant recipient.
“With regard to your questions about pipeliners storing equipment out there, this is not happening,” Barnes assured Lagarde in a reply email on Oct. 26. “The three trailers you mentioned are in fact portable restrooms that are used at the facility, usually at the pavilion when there are events. These trailers allow for sanitary facilities in close proximity to the pavilion so patrons do not have to walk a long distance to take care of personal needs. They are also used for large events when additional facilities are needed. The golf cart you mentioned is one that is used by city staff at the facility.”
Barnes told Lagarde that the city code enforcement task force performed its own unannounced inspection at the facility, and that only minor issues were found, all of which have been addressed.
The visit and compliance expectations from TPWD came in the wake of Sept. 27 cease-and-desist demand to City Hall by Robert Weathers of Hill-Top RV Park, located near Cost. Weathers contends that the city is operating a commercial for-profit business in competition with local RV parks in direct violation of state and federal anti-trust and commerce law.
“The makeshift RV park does not comply with any established standards for health and safety to protect the occupants,” he charges. “No on-site supervision and lack of maintenance has given the J.B. Wells Park a third-world-country appearance in the area they allow people to live in.”
Weathers calls the city’s operation of an RV park is a public nuisance, and threatened litigation if the city did not comply with his demand to “return [J.B. Wells Park] to the intended use as a recreational-only facility.”
Weathers, who says his fight with the city is backed by other local RV parks, claims that the city’s use of J.B. Wells Park for long-term RV usage comes with an unfair advantage that private businesses cannot overcome.
“Private business has a major disadvantage when it is forced to compete with a municipality that skirts the rules and uses an endless supply of taxpayer money to choke the life out of a local business,” Weathers charges. “RV parks can struggle to get by as they incur expensive overhead to run a proper facility subject to regular inspections and code enforcement, [especially] when they are in competition with a city-run facility that can give RV space rental away if it is so inclined with little or no oversight.”
Weathers contends that the city is ignoring stipulations put in place when it became a steward of the parkland more than 50 years ago.
“When J.B. Wells Jr. set aside land for a park, he stated expectations as to how it should be maintained, with stipulations in his will executed in 1961,” he says. “The city of Gonzales, as recipient of this land, agreed to comply by accepting and developing J.B. Wells Park for public use. According to sources, the city of Gonzales has taken extreme liberties in assuming it is appropriate to utilize the J.B. Wells Park facility as it sees fit, without regard for contractual obligations and the law. Operating a commercial RV Park without being subject to the same standards, including the application and inspection processes, while requiring private business to meet these standards, is hypocritical.”
Because of the threatened litigation, Barnes deferred all questions to Williamson. On Oct. 2, Williamson said she was forwarding Weathers’ cease-and-desist demand to the Texas Municipal League for a legal opinion.
But when contacted Tuesday, Oct. 30, Williamson said because Weathers had not filed suit against the city, “TML is not handling this.”
After TPWD’s site visit and communications with the city, Weathers reversed his position on Oct. 23. “I have revisited my thoughts about Mr. Barnes and J.B. Wells, and believe that no legal action will be taken at this point. My attorney advised me that TPWD is very capable of handling any problems that need correcting under their contract with the city of Gonzales,” Weathers said.
Three weeks after Weathers’ cease-and-desist letter to the city, the city issued its own cease-and-desist, along with a criminal trespass notice. The documents were delivered to Hill-Top RV Park prohibiting entry to J.B. Wells Park by D.E. Weathers, Robert’s deceased grandfather. The letter was signed by Williamson on Oct. 17.
Failure to comply with the notice, which is on file with the Gonzales Police Department, subjects the elder Weathers to immediate arrest and criminal trespass charges being filed. If found guilty of violating the notice, the elder Weathers could be sentenced up to six months in jail and a fine up to $2,000. The criminal trespass notice was signed by Barnes on Oct. 17.
Weathers confirmed that his deceased grandfather has not attempted to violate the notice.
Less than transparent
While Barnes appears to have been forthcoming with TPWD in its investigation of the alleged violations at J.B. Wells Park, the city manager’s responses to media queries from Oct. 19-31 did not exhibit the same transparency.
When The Gonzales Inquirer asked Barnes on Oct. 19 about communications with TPWD in the wake of the Oct. 12 site visit and the Oct. 16 telephone conversation with and email from TPWD, Barnes said “I can say that we have received no correspondence from TxPWD on any matter in the recent past.”
Citing the threatened litigation, Barnes referred further comment to Williamson.
When asked on Oct. 23 about any correspondence with TPWD, Williamson said “We’ve not gotten anything [from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department].”
After receiving confirmation from Lagarde regarding her conversations and email correspondence with Barnes – and, in fact, “two conversations with city employees” – The Gonzales Inquirer asked Barnes and Williamson on Oct. 30, “Have you or anyone else talked to or received any communication from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department?”
Barnes reiterated his Oct. 19 claim, “I believe my response [on Oct. 19] was that I had not. I still have not received a letter from TxPWD.” He again cited the threatened litigation and deferred any further comment to Williamson. Williamson has not answered the query.
When asked for explanation Wednesday, Oct. 31, regarding Barnes’ claim that no communication has occurred between TPWD and the city (specifically his office), Lagarde response was understandable: “I do not know what the confusion is.” Lagarde also confirmed that a physical letter was not sent to Barnes, but that the letter was emailed on Oct. 16.
Despite his recommendation that further comment be directed to Williamson, Barnes was again contacted “to give you every opportunity to respond to questions that still linger.” No response was received.