A road not traveled: Dispute over property access leads to court cases, hard feelings (Video)
Dec. 10, 2011 at 6:10 a.m.
Updated Dec. 12, 2011 at 6:12 a.m.
The road not taken
A conflict over the ownership of a rural road pits landowners against each other both in and out of the courtroom.
McFaddin is near the San Antonio River, two miles east of U.S. Highway 77 and 18 miles southwest of Victoria in Victoria County. It was named for Capt. James A. McFaddin, a Civil War veteran and prominent Refugio County cattleman who began ranching at the fork of the Guadalupe and San Antonio rivers in Victoria County in 1876. In 1931, the first oil well in Victoria County was brought in at McFaddin.
SOURCE: The Handbook of Texas Online
Erin Wright must take a boat to reach her family's home in McFaddin.
A locked gate prevents Wright and about eight other property owners from reaching their destination except via the San Antonio River.
Wright, who has to scale a steep incline from the river to flat land, wants to be able to take the road once most traveled to her family's home.
But Virginia Dierlam locked the gate on what she says - and the courts have agreed - is a private road. She said she wants to protect her property and her property rights.
The opposing views on the use of McCan Road in McFaddin has been ongoing for almost 10 years and has led to court battles, all won by Dierlam.
In 2002, Dierlam won the original verdict and an appeal going against the other landowners, as well as a ruling this October against the Wrights.
But Erin Wright says her family's history of using the land should be considered.
For more than 90 years, Wright's family used "the only road we've ever known" to get to its 35 acres in McFaddin, she said.
"My grandmother grew up out there. She was the postmaster for 25 years," said Wright, who has the responsibility for maintaining the house and property for her father, Dr. John C. Wright, who lives in Oregon. "The Dierlams have no clue about the history down there."
She contends the Dierlams want her family's property for deer hunting and access to the river.
The Dierlams own about 1,380 acres in McFaddin.
The disagreement has gotten personal at times.
Wright has used the Internet to post comments and blogs blasting the Dierlams' decision to lock them out.
Carl Williams, another locked-out landowner, said, "There's a lot of bad feelings down there."
Mark Dierlam, Virginia's son, said one of the problems was the way Erin Wright approached them about re-gaining access to the road.
"It's a matter of respect," he said. "They think they are entitled, instead of asking for permission."
"The Dierlams tried to work with the other property owners for a long time," said Bob Houston, Virginia Dierlam's attorney. "They even gave them keys to the gate for awhile."
But as time passed and more and more people, including deer hunters, began to use the road, conditions deteriorated.
Flooding also caused washouts further affecting the road's condition and raising other issues for Dierlam.
"After Virginia became the owner of the ranch, she needed to exercise some control over who could go through," Houston said. "It's a question of liability."
Houston said some of the landowners affected didn't react positively to Dierlam's decision.
"Some of them took the position they could go down the road whether she liked it or not. They didn't have to have her permission. She couldn't control their access at all," said Houston. "That's how the issue came up. Did she have any right to control access to her property or not?"
In 2002, Dierlam filed the lawsuit to have the court decide the issue.
The court ruled that no one could go across Dierlam's property without her permission and that she did have the right to control access to her property, said Houston.
Dr. John C. Wright was dismissed from the lawsuit, according to Houston, after he agreed that he use the road with the Dierlams' permission, a point Erin Wright disputes.
"My dad never agreed to permissive agreement," Wright said.
In 2010, Erin Wright approached Houston about use of the road.
"I told them we would be willing to work with them to work out permissions," Houston said. "What we cannot have is them claiming they have an absolute right. Virginia wouldn't have any control over the property."
In 2010, on behalf of her father, Erin Wright filed a lawsuit against Virginia Dierlam to access the road.
In October 2011, District Judge Skipper Koetter ruled against Wright, citing statute of limitations because it had been more than eight years since the original lawsuit, said Houston.
Property owners affected by the gate recently appeared before the Victoria County Commissioners Court, hoping to get the county involved in settling the dispute.
Dr. John B. Wright of Port Lavaca, Erin Wright's brother, addressed the commissioners.
"We have a house on the property. It's a homestead. My sister lived in that house when the gate was locked in 2002 until 2005. We have plans to live there again, once we can rebuild the house," Wright said. "I am asking the county to list McCan Road as a county road, which it is. It's just been maintained by the oil companies, who originally built it."
Mary McAllister, Dr. John C. Wright's sister, also spoke to commissioners.
"It wasn't until the Dierlams inherited the land in 2002 that we had a problem and got locked out," she said.
McAllister also said it's unsafe to try to get to her land using the sloped bank of the San Antonio River.
"I'm not as young as I once was," she told the commissioners.
McAllister admits her ties to the land are also emotional.
"This is our childhood home," she wrote in an email. "We attended McFaddin School. Our house on the property is the only house I remember growing up in. ... My father would have never put in all the time and labor he did on his land if he, for one second, thought that there would not be easement forever."
"I will not let them take my land and sincerely hope that they have grasped the idea that, should I ever sell or give my land away, it will not be to them," McAllister said.
Erin Wright has located a right-of-way deed from the 1930s that refers to what is now McCan Road as a county road.
She is continuing to research county records, hoping to find an official designation of the one-time oil field road as a county-maintained roadway.
Victoria County Commissioner Gary Burns, whose precinct includes McFaddin, said the county would need more proof than a listing on a deed.
"If and when some proof is produced that this was ever a county road, then that makes it something we could look into," Burns said.
The fight continues
The Wrights have filed a notice of appeal in the district court's latest decision to the 13th Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi.
Dr. John B. Wright also has fond memories of the home place in McFaddin and is saddened by the turn of events.
"Since 2002, I have only been out to McFaddin a handful of times," he wrote in October. "The house I helped build (after a fire in 1985) is in disrepair. I want my child, nieces and nephews to have the same opportunities I had.
"I want them to form their own memories, and realize the wonders of nature and God's creation. And someday, I want to be playing dominoes with my generation, watching our grandkids playing in the fields and climbing trees."
In a March 2011 email to her attorney at the time, Carl Bedgood, Erin Wright wrote, "Win or lose, we can say we fought the fight. I made a promise to my grandmother on her death bed that I would see this through. We are not giving up."