Slip sliding away

A South Dallas couple takes on the city to save back yard

Lillie Gallatin was 100 years, six months, and two days old when she quietly passed away last summer. A blood clot finally got the best of the spry woman, who worked in her garden right up until she departed.

Gallatin's passing was a terrible loss, but her daughter, Cora Barnes, and Cora's husband, Melton, are at least thankful that Gallatin's life didn't end with a nightmarish tumble over the treacherous, 35-foot cliff in her backyard.

Gallatin's death hasn't stopped the Barneses, especially Melton, from trying to get city officials to do something, anything, to stop the Woody Branch Creek from washing away Gallatin's back yard. The couple, who live next door to Gallatin's former home in the 5000 block of Hunters View Lane in South Dallas, are also worried about their own back yard.

The adjoining homes are among the dozens of residential lots built along Woody Branch Creek. For years now, the creek has been gnawing away at the properties unabated. The creek keeps getting bigger and faster, and its waters have already ripped out buildings, garages, fences, and trees and swept them away in its murky current. In the process, the creek's once-gentle banks have become steep, dangerous cliffs.

The Barnes family was one of the first to move onto Hunter's View Lane, building two brick homes there in the late 1960s, when the area was still rural. For more than 10 years, the Barneses say, the creek was a perfect playground for their children.

Then Red Bird Mall was built, and the city installed drainage pipes that guided runoff from the mall's massive parking lots into the creek. As other development came to the area, more and more streets and parking lots began to shed water that found its way into Woody Branch Creek. When the water came, the Barneses says, the erosion began.

"We had no problems at all until they built Red Bird Mall," says Melton Barnes, who has documented the problem with photographs dating back to the 1970s.

Since then, the Barneses have watched a wooden storage building, a matching fence, numerous trees, and countless layers of topsoil disappear over the cliff and into the creek. They can't buy enough caulk to keep filling up the massive cracks that are splitting their late mom's driveway, which is slowly being pulled toward the cliff.

Melton Barnes has been complaining about the erosion for more than 10 years, but the 71-year-old retired printer is learning that the only thing tougher to beat than Mother Nature is the City of Dallas.

In 1994, city officials finally targeted some four dozen homes or "sites" for repair along a three-and-a-half-mile stretch of the creek, which runs between Highway 67 and Interstate 35E. The next year, construction crews began erecting massive brick "gabion" walls to protect the banks of the creek along those sites. The $2.6 million project, which was funded as part of a 1995 bond election, is expected to be completed in the spring.

The Barneses are happy that many of their neighbors are getting walls, but they can't figure out why their property didn't make it onto the list. As the project's completion date nears, the Barneses are worried that they'll be overlooked and that their property will eventually wash away.

They are also beginning to suspect that there's some political hanky-panky going on. Namely, the Barneses don't know why Dallas City Councilman Don Hicks is getting his yard fixed as part of a $75,000 repair job even though his property isn't as badly damaged as theirs.

The Barneses also don't know how Hicks managed to sneak another neighbor's property onto the list of houses that are being targeted for repairs.

A man who is not easily deterred, Melton has spent the last year cajoling city engineers during weekly visits to the city's Flood Plain Management and Erosion Control department, located in the Oak Cliff Municipal Building. Armed with photographs of his property and a tape recorder, Barnes says his questions fall on deaf and stubborn ears.

"They [city engineers] will keep giving me excuses until all of the land is gone," Melton says. "But I'm retired, and I've got plenty of time on my hands."

The mention of Barnes' name causes the eyes of the department's engineers to roll. Melton Barnes, they say politely, is very persistent.

"He's been here no less than 20 times," says Lloyd Denman, an engineer on the project. "He just feels discriminated against because other people got walls and he didn't."

Fellow engineer Steve Parker is less subtle.
"He's off base. He isn't being ignored," Parker says. "[We] reviewed his property and didn't even see it as a low priority. He's not even in this study."

The study Parker is referring to is a 1994 report completed by Doyle Engineering Group. The city hired DEG to assess the erosion along the creek and to target homes for repair on a three-priority basis.

The top priority was houses, bridges, or streets that are in danger of collapsing. The second priority included garages, storage houses, or swimming pools that are in jeopardy. Then came fences, walls, trees, and top soil. In addition, Parker says, DEG also targeted areas where the creek bends, because the water hits those areas harder, causing more damage.

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