A park is a park — unless it's not


People are debating what a park is again.

The City of Gonzales points to J.B. Wells Park as a shining example, gleaming from top of Santa Anna's Mound. After all, it does have “park” in its name. But the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary thinks otherwise and sees the land as nothing more than failed intentions by a city that long ago veered from the original intentions of what the “park” should be. And thus, they want their land.

The problem is, what exactly is a park?

In the Presbyterian's lawsuit, they claim “inverse condemnation” and seek damages for the loss of reversionary rights to the land because Gonzales officials have “violated the terms of the gift.”

In the 1961 will penned by local cattleman J.B. Wells, he left approximately 300 acres on the southern bank of the Guadalupe River for “public park purposes.” If the land were not developed as a park, then it was to be given — or sold and royalties given — to his church, and further up the line, the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

The will states that his property “shall be maintained in its natural condition of natural woodland and shall never be cleared of trees or shrubs. It shall be kept clean of dead timber and necessary replacements shall be trees and shrubs native to this section of Texas. It shall be kept for a game sanctuary for native Texas white tail deer, of which a few shall be kept in the park.”

The Presbyterians claim that Wells implicitly distinguished “public park” use from that of  “recreation and campground use,” with a campground on his land actually being developed and left to a local church, separate of the “park.”

A 1999 deed signed by Wells' trustees doubled down on the restrictions, they say.

Now, the park functions with three improvements: an exposition center, rodeo and sports arena, and 442-space recreational vehicle campground, the lawsuit continues. The beef here is that the city emphasizes indoor event-based use including rodeos, trade shows, fundraisers, concerts, casino nights, gala dinners, and private events rather than the preservation of the land or some “nature-oriented activity.”

The city also keeps separate financial records for the property under “JB Wells,” distinct from “Park” revenues and expenses related to other local property operated as public parks, the suit says.

“The City of Gonzales has been actually aware of Petitioner's rights for years. The City of Gonzales has ignored Petitioner's interest and rejected Petitioner's efforts to avoid litigation, while continuing to intentionally use the Subject Property, and income from Subject Property, for purposes other than 'public park' use as defined by the grantor.”

Inverse condemnation occurs when a government takes property for public use without proper condemnation proceedings, and the property owner attempts to recover compensation for that taking.

Wells' will also makes plans for his camp lodge on the property. The lodge and its fenced grounds were to be maintained and the live oak tree and shrubbery cared for. The building was to be used for his various collections of guns, fishing rods, and memorabilia.

The lawsuits cites a Texas Supreme Court ruling, City of Fort Worth v. Burnett, in which a donor left land for use as a public park. The ruling said that even if a city builds a public library on land donated for use as a public park, it is “ inconsistent with the purpose for which the park was dedicated, and amounts to a diversion.”

Further, the Presbyterians claim that the meaning of a park is valid from what was written by the donor as so far as what was defined as a park at that time of a will's creation. They argue that Wells meant a “public park” to be meant as a natural space, “not the income-driven, fairground-type use that has evolved today” on the land, and that the mere construction of a road violated the donor's restrictions to park use.

The ultimate decision has yet to be decided in courts, and it might be a while before it is done. As of now, both the Presbyterians and the City are arguing exactly which court should hear the case. A complete record of the will and oral arguments can be obtained on the second floor of the Randle-Rather Building downtown.