Judge Orders Mediation For City and Railroad Museum, Then Rules on TRO

It was all hugs and kisses in Judge Martin Hoffman's courtroom at the George Allen today -- but only because before the city and the Museum of the American Railroad faced off over the museum's request for a temporary restraining order, the judge agreed to marry 20-year-old Aime Cruz and 22-year-old Rocky Martinez. Given the myriad references made during the hearing about how the fight between the city and the Fair Park mainstay was more like an ugly divorce, it seemed only fitting to begin the proceedings with a wedding.

"That's a tough act to follow, judge," said Assistant City Attorney Chris Caso after Hoffman had tied the couple's knot. Not to worry -- there was plenty of drama to go around.

Because as far as the city's concerned, the museum is a "squatter" on city property that refuses to budge and go to Frisco, as it announced in April 2008 it intended to do. "They're there without the permission of the owners," Caso said -- the owners being the city of Dallas, which wants the museum gone by August 1 to make room for auto manufacturers the State Fair has said want to lease the land. "They're trespassers."

And as far as the museum's concerned, "We have the right to be there," in the words of attorney William Brotherton, who used words like "petty" and "absurd" to describe the city's claims. Said the attorney, "The city's bullying the museum into saying, 'You know what? We're outta there. We can't take it anymore."

Hoffman said both sides make a pretty good case: The museum's been there in some way, shape or form since the first train landed on Fair Park property in '49; and the city has every right to demand its property back given the museum's well-publicized intention to move to 12 acres in Frisco. And so he ordered both parties into mediation by no later than the first week of March, with an injunction hearing scheduled for March 8.

As for Hoffman's ruling concerning the museum's request for a temporary restraining order ...

Hoffman said that, yes, the city has every right to stop paying for power and water to the museum -- but the city must give the museum an adequate heads-up before it cuts off utilities. Caso says the city has not decided if it'll do so before mediation or the injunction hearing early next month. But the judge ruled that the city cannot, for now, demand a certificate of occupancy from the museum within the next 14 days, nor can the city interfere with the museum's business unless the city determines the "health, safety and welfare" of the general public is threatened. (Update: His order is below.)

The museum had hoped to maintain "status quo" till this is sorted out. And it offered several times during today's hearing to sign a contract that has August 1, 2011, as a "drop-dead date" for its leaving Fair Park. If it's not gone after that, said Brotherton, the city was more than welcome to seize the 37 trains at the museum and sell them on eBay.

Caso said he's confused by the museum's offer. Because on the one hand, he says, the museum's terrified of the city damaging or ruining its trains, "but if they don't leave, we can have them? Which is it? They're being hypocritical."

Museum officials -- and both CEO Bob LaPrelle and President Tom Smith attended today's hearing -- said there were multiple attempts made over the years to keep the museum within the city, Ron Natinsky's efforts notwithstanding. Said LaPrelle, they looked at moving to the West End, to the south parking lot of Reunion Arena and the old Katy switching yards off of Stemmons. But in the end and "out of the blue" Frisco made the better offer.

Problem is, they say, Frisco's a long ways off from being ready, and moving 37 trains is going to be awfully hard, given the need for federal certification to move all those pieces on Class 1 track on the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway line. Says LaPrelle, it'll cost $2.1 million to move to Frisco, where they still need to put down 10,000 yards of soil to prep the site. Brotherton says it'll cost $250,000 alone just to get a switch off the BSNF line once the trains are ready to head up north.

Brotherton said that the city's lawsuit -- "and its abuse of powers" -- is not only eating up money the museum needs to fund the move, "but what makes it worse is that with the lawsuit hanging over our head, it dampens enthusiasm for people who are looking to donate money."

To which Caso responds: Too bad. "It's an economic development issue," he tells Unfair Park. "They've been there for a number of years and decided to go. So now we have people there who no longer want to provide their services, and it's our job to maximize the potential for Fair Park on behalf of the taxpayers."
Judge Hoffman's Temporary Restraining Order in Dallas v. Museum of American Railroad

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky