The Texas Dept. of Transportation
unlawfully discriminated against the city of Sunset Valley
during construction of U.S. 290, an appeals court in Austin ruled last week. In an Aug. 30 decision, the court upheld a trial court's judgment against TxDOT on two counts. First, the court faulted TxDOT for "intentionally and knowingly" shining bright floodlights from the roadway project onto the homes of area residents, including Sunset Valley Mayor Terry Cowan
, an intervening plaintiff in the lawsuit. Cowan was awarded nearly $11,000 in damages and attorney's fees. The appeals court also affirmed judgment against the agency for refusing to identify Sunset Valley in exit ramp or city limit signs on the highway, and upheld damages of $34,000. While the higher court agreed that TxDOT illegally appropriated and destroyed a city road in the path of the highway project, the appeals panel kicked the decision over to the General Land Office to determine the amount of damages owed Sunset Valley. The trial court had previously awarded the city $1.6 million.
"This opinion has made it clear that even a community of 300 can't be picked on by a big agency like TxDOT," said attorney Brad Rockwell, who represented Sunset Valley along with the law firm of Scanlan, Buckle & Young. Texas Civil Rights Project attorney Jim Harrington represented the mayor. Sunset Valley sued TxDOT in 1998 based on a series of conflicts stemming from the early Nineties, when the agency began expanding U.S. 290. The roadway serves roughly as the northern boundary of the small incorporated community, which lies within Southwest Austin.