Bye, bye Bethel
After six months of turmoil that turned neighbor against neighbor, sister against sister, the tiny town of Bethel, population of maybe 210, is no longer a town.
In a Grayson County courtroom packed with more than 100 protesters and staffed with extra sheriff's deputies, Visiting District Judge John McCraw on Friday quietly granted Grayson County Attorney Bob Jarvis' motion for summary judgment, effectively declaring the town of Bethel void.
Residents of the mostly agricultural area, located just south of Whitewright, voted to incorporate the town on May 3. The election was an unprecedented attempt on the part of some local residents to block plans by North Texas Cement Co. to build a cement plant in the limestone-rich community.
As the Dallas Observer reported in July ["O Little Town of Bethel-sham"], numerous area landowners believed they were intentionally excluded from the town's boundaries because they had already sold options on their land to the cement company. They viewed the incorporation of the town as an illegal attempt to prevent them from selling their land.
In July, Jarvis filed a civil lawsuit against Bethel Mayor Larry Schone and town commissioners Jack Bartley and Mack Williams, arguing that the May 3 election was rigged and that the town of Bethel did not meet the legal requirements for being incorporated.
"That area was incorporated not because self-governance was genuinely desired, but rather because some area residents wanted to stop a particular industry from coming into that area," Jarvis argued in his motion. "Texas incorporation laws are not designed to serve that private purpose."
In granting the motion, McCraw did not provide a reason for his ruling, which is final unless the town's supporters decide to appeal. Dallas attorney Bruce Stockard, who represented the town, said his clients haven't decided whether they will appeal.
"The way I left it with the town was, they were going to call me with a decision after they had a meeting," Stockard says. "We felt like there were genuine issues of material fact, which should have gone to a jury. So we're obviously disappointed with the decision."
One of those issues was the question of how many residents actually lived in Bethel. While Stockard argued that the town had more than the 201 residents required by state law, Jarvis said he could only identify 77. (One family that was excluded from the town's boundaries, Jarvis says, was the Schone family.)
Jarvis also argued that part of Bethel was already within the extraterritorial jurisdiction of Whitewright and that the town's boundaries were not mapped correctly.
"The purported 'town' was not drawn to capture the heart of a community," Jarvis wrote. "Rather, its boundaries were drawn like a crazed 'cut and paste' job."
When contacted this week, Jarvis said he was pleased with the decision even though the plant's opponents embarked upon a very personal publicity campaign in which they suggested that Jarvis was, among other things, a puppet for the plant.
One of the placards visible at Friday's hearings stated: "Local DA's office for sale. Buyer North Texas Cement."
"I don't think I would like a cement company moving in next door to me, but my job as county attorney is to uphold the law," Jarvis says. "All I did was point out that they were wrong."
When reached by telephone, ex-mayor Schone declined to comment on the ruling, saying he didn't like the Observer's coverage of the issue. Meanwhile, cement company spokesman Michael Patterson says the company is pleased with the ruling and hopes to apply for a state permit to begin construction on the plant within a few weeks.
"Obviously it takes [the land] out of the town, but we're still in control of the land," Patterson says of Friday's ruling. "We always have been in control of the land."
During the battle, residents stopped speaking to each other, the local church was split in two, and neighbors accused each other of spying and stealing each other's mail. Although the issue of the town's legal status appears to be resolved, it's unlikely that the new-found clarity will make mending personal fences any easier.
Town foe Letha Saltzman, who repeatedly accused the town's elected leaders of violating open-meeting laws and hoarding town documents, says she doubts that the once-tranquil area will ever be the same.
"There's just too many bridges burned that I don't think can be rebuilt," Saltzman says.
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