The Austin Court of Appeals has applied the law of constitutional standing to affirm a Travis County trial court’s dismissal of a lawsuit over the county’s vacation of a drainage easement.


Bellingham Enterprises, LLC v. Colby Constructors, LLC; Travis County Commissioners Court; et al. (No. 03-22-00233-CV) arose from a dispute between property owners on Lake Travis. Colby owned a lot on which it sought to build a residence. The property, located in the City of Austin’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, had a drainage easement on the part of the property bordering Bellingham’s lot. After Colby bought the property, it determined that the drainage easement served no purpose and asked the Travis County Commissioners Court of vacate it. The commissioners agreed and vacated the easement. When Bellingham got wind of the commissioners’ action, it filed suit against Colby and the commissioners’ court seeking a declaration that the commissioners’ action was void and injunctive relief blocking Colby from building on its property. The county defendants and Colby moved to dismiss the suit for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which the trial court did. Bellingham appealed.


The court of appeals affirmed. The primary issue in the case was whether Bellingham had standing to bring the lawsuit. Bellingham alleged that the vacation of the easement diminished its property value. The county defendants and Colby responded that Bellingham had no standing because the vacated easement did not affect any of its property rights and any potential future harm to Bellingham’s property was speculative, remote, and uncertain. The court’s analysis commenced with a review of well-established Texas law governing constitutional standing. It is important to note, as the court stated, that the standing requirement “derives from the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers among the departments of government, which denies the judiciary authority to decide issues in the abstract, and from the Open Courts provision, which provides court access only to a ‘person for an injury done him’” (citations omitted). Standing further requires a “concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between parties that will be resolved by the court” (citations omitted). Finally, the plaintiff’s injury must be personal to the plaintiff, not an injury to a third party or the general public, and “concrete and particularized, actual or imminent, not hypothetical” (citations omitted).


In this case, a property owner challenged the action of a governmental entity, partly on the basis that the original plat “dedicated the easement to the public for the purpose of drainage and that a cause of action exists when a private landowner seeks to obstruct publicly dedicated land with an improper use.” In support, Bellingham cited a SCOTX decision [Brooks v. Jones, 578 S.W.2d 669 (Tex. 1979)] holding that a private landowner has standing to enforce a public dedication if the landowner has a property interest that will suffer if the dedicated land is obstructed. Here the court held that Bellingham could not show “an actual or imminent injury” resulting from the county’s decision to vacate the easement because sufficient evidence existed to prove that removal of the easement would negatively affect adjacent property. Thus, “any potential negative impact in the future is too speculative, contingent, or remote to support a justiciable claim” (citations omitted).


One of the central issues in the SB 8 litigation, of course, is whether the Legislature can confer standing by fiat, overriding the constitutional limitations on a court’s jurisdiction. While this case did not involve such a statutory grant, it did feature an effort to achieve by private litigation what the plaintiff could not accomplish by a public process designed for determining whether the easement in question was still necessary. The court’s opinion makes it clear that Texas’ constitutional standing doctrine is alive and well, and that courts must carefully enforce the boundaries of their jurisdiction.

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