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Slip sliding away

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.

When they compared all of the sites along the creek, Parker says, they found that Barnes' property was located in a straight portion of the creek and that his house was not under an "immediate threat" of collapsing. Given the limited resources, Parker says, the city was forced to put the Barneses and their mom's property at the bottom of the priority list.

Cora and Melton Barnes stand behind a twisting, contorted chainlink fence that runs across the length of Lillie Gallatin's back yard. Melton installed the fence, a replacement for the one that had washed into the creek, because Lillie kept standing at the cliff's edge, and he was terrified she'd lose her balance and fall in.

"I said, 'Be careful out there,'" Melton Barnes recalls. "'If you fall over the edge, we'll need a crane to get you out.'"

The remains of a green fence still jut out past the chainlink fence, its rotting wood dangling over a straight 35-foot drop to the creek. The storage building that used to stand a few feet over is nowhere to be seen.

With the loss of a storage house and a fence, the Barneses are clearly candidates for "Priority II" status, according to the city's own calculations, but they didn't even make the list.

Last week, however, the city began repairing council member Hicks' property, located at 6840 Talbot Parkway. Hicks got a Priority II status even though he hasn't lost any buildings and the wrought iron fence that runs along his back yard still stands straight and tall.

Speaking on his car phone, Hicks says he got involved in the issue because he's lost a lot of land and his swimming pool was about to begin cracking.

"That's why I started this project. I got flooded in '89, and the erosion was just eating away at the banks across from me. It's all right for a councilman to get some of his property fixed, isn't it?" Hicks says. "I'm proud to help whoever I can, including myself."

But the report describing the damage to Hicks' property doesn't mention a swimming pool. Instead, Hicks got his ranking because of "minor damage to the storm sewer and the potential to increase," according to a summary report of the construction, which indicates that Hicks can rest assured that the city will look after his property.

"It is recommended that this site be considered for repair in future budget considerations as the extent of the erosion increases and funding becomes available," the summary states.

City engineer Yogesh Patel explains that they are constructing a support "mattress" on Hicks' land because they are building an actual wall next door, where the erosion is threatening a house. Without the mattress, Patel says, the creek will continue to erode the bank and, eventually, undermine the wall.

Patel and his colleagues dismiss speculation that Hicks is getting special treatment, but Patel acknowledges that Hicks has spoken to him about his property.

"At the work site, I was talking to him, and he said, 'Why can't I get a wall?' I said, 'Sir, with all respect, you don't need a wall like that. That's an expensive wall,'" Patel says.

Councilman Larry Duncan, who represents District 4--where the Barneses live--says he can't explain why Hicks' property is being repaired. But Duncan says he was peeved last summer when he discovered that Hicks managed to slip another house onto the list of houses to be repaired.

The house, located at 5905 Hunters View Lane and owned by S.J. Bishop, is listed as a Priority 3 site that, along with a neighboring property, is scheduled to receive $106,875 in bond-financed repairs.

"It did get snuck onto the list," says Duncan, who adds that he has no idea who Bishop is or how he's affiliated with Hicks. "It surprised me that they knew each other."

Hicks says he can't recall whether he helped get Bishop's property onto the list. In fact, he's not even sure who Bishop is.

"Is he a big tall guy?" Hicks asks. "I don't know a Bishop. Not unless you can refresh my memory. I know a big tall guy asked me to look at his property."  

Duncan, who has spent years working with homeowners to get funding for the repairs, says Lillie Gallatin's house and two other homes should have been targeted for repair in the 1995 bond election, but the engineers mistakenly overlooked the properties.

The money that Hicks' friend is receiving is money that Duncan says should be going to people like the Barneses. But the city is legally bound to repair Bishop's property because it made it onto the list.

"So here we are with one [property] that's gonna be done that doesn't need to be done and three that [still] need to be done," Duncan says.

Although he's trying to find money for the three properties, Duncan says it's more likely that those owners will have to wait until 1998, when the next bond election is held. In the meantime, Duncan says, Melton Barnes' annoying tactics aren't improving his odds of getting a wall.

"It requires a good working relationship between the neighborhood and staff, and it doesn't help to have somebody down there pounding on them when we're trying to work cooperatively," Duncan says.

In their report, DEG concluded that the erosion couldn't be blamed on any one thing. Instead, it stated, the erosion is a natural result of heavy rains, flooding, and additional runoff into the creek from nearby homes and businesses. They're not engineers, but the Barneses tend to lend more weight to the latter explanation.

"They told us, at one time, it's 'God's problem,'" Cora Barnes says. "Well, it's God's problem, but the city has helped it along."

Melton Barnes points out a drainage pipe the city installed on the opposite side of the creek, directly across from Gallatin's land. The pipe used to point right at the bank, sending water crashing into the bank and accelerating the erosion.

"It took me eight years of arguing with 'em before they came down and put it [the pipe] at a 45-degree angle," Barnes says.

Although the city recently changed the angle of the pipe so the water would flow into the stream, rather than across it, Denman says he doesn't think the original pipe affected Barnes' land.

"The pipe has had no impact as far as we can see," says Denman, who adds that its Barnes' responsibility to repair damage to his own property.

Parker, the city engineer, says that he would like to give Barnes a wall, but that there's no money left over from the $25.2 million flood and storm damage bond package that voters approved in 1995, a portion of which was used to fund the Woody Branch Creek project.

The earliest the city could get additional bond money is in a 1998 bond election. Although Parker says he will ask for more flood control funds, he doubts that any of it will go to the Barneses if it's approved.

"He's on the list," Parker says. "Will he be funded? Not likely.


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