~Article as posted from The Houston Chronicle
After two fraught years of legal battle, the lawsuit over a proposed Waller County landfill came to a quiet close Friday with a deal that ensures the civil case against the county will not be appealed but that does not prevent the landfill from being built.
The county commissioners court’s 3-2 vote Friday morning to approve the settlement comes two months after a jury found that commissioners violated transparency laws in agreeing to host the 250-acre landfill near the small city of Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. The settlement voids the county’s 2013 ordinance and host agreement authorizing the waste site while stipulating that the county will pay $570,000 in attorneys’ fees incurred by the plaintiffs, the city of Hempstead and the group Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead.
However, the fate of the project remains in limbo, as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, not Waller County, has final say over whether the landfill gets built. The landfill company’s permit application is scheduled to be reviewed in a contested case hearing in August.
A chance to heal
“This landfill has caused a lot of damage in this county,” County Judge Trey Duhon said before voting to approve the settlement, which he said he believes is in the county’s best interest, fees and all. “I hope this is an opportunity for this county to start to heal.”
Commissioners Russell Klecka and John Amsler also voted in favor of the deal.
“It’s very sad that it had to be done this way,” Amsler said. “But now – now we the people of Waller County who do not want this landfill, because of this trial, I maintain that we occupy the moral high ground.”
The two commissioners who opposed the deal, Jeron Barnett and Justin Beckendorff, cited concerns about the financial impact of the deal on the county, with Barnett also worrying that the nullification of the 2013 landfill ordinance would leave other areas of the county open to a waste site.
As Beckendorff, whose father Glenn Beckendorff was county judge when Waller agreed to the landfill, put it, “This is a lose-lose-lose situation.”
“Rainy days are coming,” Barnett said.
The trial concerned the legality of Waller County’s 2013 decision to reverse a 2011 ordinance that prohibited the proposed Pintail Landfill and instead sign an agreement to host the project. The vote was 3-2. The city of Hempstead and Citizens Against the Landfill in Hempstead sued. They challenged the county’s jurisdiction over the landfill area – it’s located partially within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction – as well as the commissioners’ alleged lack of transparency throughout the approval process.
The county judge at the time said the lifted restrictions would not have held up, given the timeline of Pintail’s permit application.
Duhon, for his part, addressed concerns Friday about the attorneys’ fees that the county now must cover.
“I don’t take the expenditure of these fees lightly by any means,” Duhon said, but noted that he thought the county could have been asked to pay more had it not agreed to a deal.
Following the commissioners court’s discussion and approval of the settlement, retired state District Judge Terry Flenniken signed the final judgment, calling the case to a close before some 30 attendees, many of whom had been present throughout the trial.
“This is what Waller County wanted,” said Brent Ryan, an attorney for the landfill company, Pintail. He reiterated that the company is moving forward with its plans for the waste site.
Now the county is shifting attention to the contested case hearing in August over Pintail’s permit application, and to developing a comprehensive waste management plan.
“With this order,” Duhon said, “our work is just beginning.”