Trail Enterprises’ efforts to collect an inverse condemnation judgment against the City of Houston have finally come to an end. The US Supreme Court has refused to hear its case. Trail Enterprises’ story is instructive to parties who may be thinking of challenging cities’ decisions to ban drilling within their boundaries.
The dispute has a long history. Lake Houston is a major source of drinking water for the City of Houston. In 1967, the City passed an ordinance restricting the drilling of new oil and gas wells in a “control area” around the lake. That restriction has remained in place except for an eleven-month gap in 1996-97, when the lake was annexed into the City and the City passed a new ordinance protecting the lake.
In 1995, Trail Enterprises, an owner of mineral interests in the restricted area around the lake, sued the City, claiming that the 1967 ordinance restriction amounted to a “taking” of the mineral interests in violation of the US Constitution. The trial court dismissed that suit, and the Houston Court of appeals affirmed. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 957 S.W.2d 625 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 1997, writ denied). In 1999, Trail sued again, this time arguing that the City’s 1997 ordinance resulted in a taking of its property. The trial court held that the ordinance did not constitute a taking. This time the Houston Court of Appeals reversed and remanded the case for a trial. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 2002 WL 389448 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] Mar. 14, 2002, no pet.). But the parties decided to dismiss that case.
Finally, in 2003, Trail, joined by other mineral owners, filed suit a third time. In 2005 a trial was finally held and a jury awarded the plaintiffs $19 million. But the trial judge dismissed the case on the ground that the plaintiffs had never applied to the City for a drilling permit. That order was again appealed. The appeal was transferred to the Waco Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s dismissal. Trail Enters., Inc. v. City of Houston, 255 S.W.3d 105 (Tex.App.-Waco 2007). Trail appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which reversed and remanded the case back to the trial court. City of Houston v. Trail Enters., Inc., 300 S.W.3d 736 (Tex. 2009). This time, the trial court, after another evidentiary hearing, entered judgment against the city for $17 million.
The City appealed again, and in an opinion in 2012 the Houston Court of Appeals held that no “compensable taking” had occurred and reversed the trial court’s judgment. City of Houston v. Trail Enters., Inc., 377 S.W. 3rd 873 (Tex.App.-Houston [14th Dist.] 2012). Trail sought review by the Texas Supreme Court, but in October last year that court refused to hear the case. And this week, the US Supreme Court also refused to hear Trail’s appeal. After 19 years, Trail’s efforts have finally come to naught.
Why such a tortuous fight through the courts? One reason is the very murky law of inverse condemnation. The Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution provides: “nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The US Supreme Court has struggled mightily over the years to define what this means. Its seminal case on the matter is Penn Central Transp. Co. v. New York City, 438 U.S. 104 (1978). In that case, the court attempted to define when a government’s restriction of use of private property was so onerous as to require the government to pay the property owner — when governmental restrictions amount to a “taking” of private property. The court’s decision in Penn Central laid out a three-part test. Under this test, a court must evaluate a regulatory takings claim based on (1) the economic impact of the regulation, (2) the owner’s “reasonable investment-backed expectations,” and (3) the character of the regulatory action. Those words don’t mean much until fleshed out by subsequent cases, and the factors are fuzzy and subjective. So inverse condemnation cases like Trail Enterprises become very fact-specific analyses, and the subjectivity of the test sometimes allows the biases of court judges to emerge.
I’m no expert on takings law. But recent developments in Texas and other states, centered around municipalities’ increasing efforts to restrict drilling for oil and gas within their limits, may end up in takings cases like Trail Enterprises. The mineral owners’ extreme difficulty in getting a final determination of their claim in Trail, and the multiple appellate opinions grappling with the takings issues, is an indication of the hurdles that other mineral owners may face in seeking compensation for cities’ restrictions on drilling that affect the value of their mineral interests. In Texas, the City of Denton has a proposition on the November ballot: “Shall an ordinance be enacted prohibiting, within the corporate limits of the City of Denton, Texas, hydraulic fracturing ….” See “In Texas, a Fight Over Fracking,” in the New York Times, Oct. 8. Already a group of mineral owners has sued Denton over its temporary moratorium on drilling within city limits. If Denton’s referendum passes, more lawsuits are a certainty. Similar bans are being passed by cities in Colorado and Pennsylvania, and the State of New York has had a moratorium on fracking since 2008. All good news for lawyers specializing in inverse condemnation suits.