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Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority v. Garza

Court of Appeals of Texas, Thirteenth District, Corpus Christi-Edinburg

October 10, 2019

CAMERON COUNTY REGIONAL MOBILITY AUTHORITY, Appellant,
v.
DAVID GARZA AND DIANE GARZA, Appellees.

          On appeal from the 444th District Court of Cameron County, Texas.

          Before Chief Justice Contreras and Justices Longoria and Hinojosa

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          LETICIA HINOJOSA, JUSTICE

         Appellees David and Diane Garza (the Garzas) sued appellant, the Cameron County Regional Mobility Authority (CCRMA), asserting claims for inverse condemnation and breach of contract.[1] CCRMA appeals the trial court's order denying its plea to the jurisdiction. In two issues, CCRMA argues the trial court erred in denying its plea because CCRMA is protected by governmental immunity from the Garzas' claims. We reverse, render in part, and remand in part for further proceedings.

         I. Background[2]

         The West Rail Relocation Project, a joint project between CCRMA and other governmental and private entities, called for the relocation of railroad lines in Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Mexico. The United States Army Corps of Engineers (the COE) determined that the new lines would result in permanent impact to .39 acres of United States waters, including the Resaca del Rancho Viejo[3] and adjacent wetlands. As a prerequisite to the new construction, the COE required CCRMA to sponsor environmental mitigation activities to offset the project's environmental impact.

         Due to the narrow, linear nature of the project, on-site mitigation efforts were not viable. Therefore, CCRMA pursued off-site mitigation opportunities through its retained engineer, HNTB Corporation (HNTB), and with the assistance of the Valley Land Fund (the VLF), a non-profit organization. CCRMA proposed to conduct mitigation activities on 1.17 acres of property owned by the Garzas, who were seeking to protect and safeguard the wetland ecosystem on their property. The proposed mitigation site was located within a portion of the Resaca del Rancho Viejo. The Garzas donated a "Permanent Conservation Easement" for the site to the VLF.

         The COE approved CCRMA's mitigation plan and issued a permit authorizing construction of the new rail line. The mitigation plan stated that representatives of the COE, the VLF, and HNTB previously visited the site and "verified sufficient water availability and the presence of invasive species to merit enhancement activities." The required "enhancement activities" consisted of the "removal of invasive [plant] species and planting of desirable native wetland vegetation to supplement the existing wetland vegetation." The plan provided for the following "success criteria":

A plant survival survey will be completed 3 months following the completion of planting activities. Planting will have been considered successful if 50% of the plantings have survived after 3 months. If the target of 50% survival is not reached, then the mitigation site will be replanted to the original density.
The success criteria for the mitigation site are as follows: 1) 75% or greater areal cover of desirable wetland vegetation with an indicator status of facultative (FAC) or wetter, and 2) less than 25% areal cover of invasive plant species. The above stated success criteria will be monitored and maintained through the 5-year monitoring period as well as at the end of the 5-year period.
Following the initial survival survey, the mitigation site will be monitored semi-annually for a minimum of 5 years, with monitoring visits conducted during the spring and fall seasons. . . . [CCRMA] will submit monitoring reports within 30 days of the monitoring visit to the [COE]. . . .
The mitigation requirement will be considered to be complete when the site has met the success criteria 5 years after the initial planting. Should mitigation be determined to be unsuccessful by [COE] personnel at the end of the monitoring period, [CCRMA] will be required to take necessary corrective measures, as approved by the [COE]. Once the corrective measures are completed, [CCRMA] will notify the [COE] and a determination will be made regarding success of the mitigation.

         CCRMA contracted with HNTB to carry out the work detailed in the mitigation plan and to prepare the required status reports.

         In their petition, the Garzas allege they were third-party beneficiaries to the mitigation plan and CCRMA breached the plan by ignoring and failing to perform the required enhancement activities-the removal of invasive plant species and planting of native vegetation. They claim CCRMA's failure in this regard resulted in damage to the mitigation site and adjoining property, including the killing of fish, destruction of wildlife habitats, and damage to wetland vegetation. The Garzas further allege that CCRMA did not comply with the plan's reporting requirements. The Garzas claim that CCRMA's actions constituted a taking of their property without adequate compensation in violation of the Texas Constitution. Specifically, the Garzas allege that CCRMA failed to perform a number of actions which would have ensured the success of the mitigation project.[4]

         CCRMA filed a plea to the jurisdiction, [5] challenging whether the Garzas' pleadings demonstrated the trial court's subject matter jurisdiction. In particular, CCRMA argued that the Garzas did not establish a valid inverse condemnation or breach of contract claim; therefore, CCRMA's governmental immunity remained intact. The Garzas filed a response, CCRMA a reply, and the Garzas a sur-reply. Following a hearing, the trial court denied CCRMA's plea to the jurisdiction. This interlocutory appeal followed. See Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code Ann. § 51.014(a)(8).

         II.Standard of ...


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