Back in the '80s, Prestonwood Country Club opened a course in Plano known as The Hills. To irrigate the greens and fairways, they pumped water out of Indian Creek.
What the folks at Prestonwood didn't know at the time, or else chose to ignore, was that the water they were drawing from the creek, a tributary of the Elm Fork of the Trinity River, belonged to Dallas. This finally came to the attention of City Hall in 2011, when a tipster complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
No one knows for sure the value of the water that's been taken over the past three decades. Dallas Water Utilities Director Jody Puckett's best guess is in the ballpark of $500,000.
A representative of Prestonwood did not returned a call or email seeking comment.
(Update on February 13: "We're certain we will find a positive resolution to all aspects of this," Prestonwood GM Brian Keelan wrote in an email Wednesday evening. "We have been working diligently with all parties to find an amicable solution that's fair and equitable to everyone.")
The question the City Council faced today is 1) how best to collect Prestonwood's water debt and 2) whether to sell the country club water moving forward.
The council settled neither point. Because country clubs are playgrounds for the upper class, and because race and class in America are so closely entwined, and because the Dallas City Council can't talk about race without screaming at each other, things degenerated.
City staff, which has been negotiating with Prestonwood for a while now, proposed writing off the stolen water in exchange for a 3.1-acre wastewater easement that an appraiser hired by the city valued at $772,000 and simply charging the country club water moving forward.
Council member Scott Griggs kicked off the debate by suggesting the city was getting a losing deal. Twice Prestonwood has sued the Dallas Central Appraisal District to get a lower valuation for tax purposes, successfully getting it knocked down to about $.75 per square foot. What the city was offering to pay, simply to have access to a parcel of land that's mostly in the floodplain, was around $5.65 per square foot.
"They can't have it both ways," Griggs said. "It's not fair to the taxpayer, and it's not fair to the city of Dallas."
Seems like a fair point, and Griggs ultimately got his wish to have the a vote postponed, but first, Vonciel Hill had to let it be known just how much she loathes the fresh-faced intellectual property attorney from Oak Cliff.
"I think this entire public discussion is inappropriate," Hill declared. "I believe that the pontification I've heard is for public consumption and newspaper headlines."
Accusing a private business of theft is "utterly unnecessary, inappropriate and should not happen," she said. So was bringing up the two lawsuits they filed against DCAD.
"Allegations in lawsuits are meant to be disputed and handled in an appropriate forum," she continued. "Any lawyer with a law license and three seconds of practice knows that is the case. No litigator would step to any microphone and pretend that allegations in a lawsuits are a fact. I will not be voting for this spurious, misplaced, ill-conceived notion" that the vote be delayed pending further study.
Councilman Lee Kleinman also chimed in to defend Prestonwood. The country club, he says, "pays their own way," a fact he contrasted with public courses. It's taxpayer money that's paid for recent multi-million-dollar overhauls of Stevens Park and Tenison and paid for a fancy new clubhouse at Cedar Crest.
"[Y]eah, [Prestonwood] shouldn't be taking our water, we should be getting a proper appraisal, but let's not attack the golf industry when they pay their own way," he said. "They don't depend on North Dallas taxes to provide golf to South Dallas."
This, in turn, prompted Dwaine Caraway to declare that "I'm a mad Mr. Caraway right now" and launch into a fiery oratory about the struggle for racial justice in Dallas.
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"In 1961, when black people started moving to Oak Cliff, the three-story clubhouse at Cedar Crest was burned down!" he said. It took a half century to get a decent one rebuilt. "We fought to get clubhouse built back."
But as Mayor Mike Rawlings and Jerry Allen eventually pointed out, the matter of how good a deal Dallas can get from Prestonwood will have little to do with how big a tax break it gets, or matters of race and class, or fairness. It will be based on what damages Dallas would be able to prove in court. Their conclusion: very little.
Translation: City staff will go back to the negotiating table, but don't expect a materially better deal.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.