East Texas residents file new lawsuits over access to their favorite body of water

Almost a year has passed since a burgundy-silver fence with “No Entry” signs appeared around the entrance to the stretch. And it’s still there.

Cutoff is a body of water in East Texas, located on the border of Henderson and Navarro counties. Generations of people have come here to fish, boat and camp. But in late 2020, a new landowner bought a cut-off border site and put up a fence shortly thereafter.

According to Dustin Baker, leader of local advocacy group Save the Cutoff, duck hunting in the Cutoff has been particularly successful this year. But if he had his way, he would sacrifice a few mallards and mallards he caught so that more people could enjoy this space.

“The fence scared away a lot of people. And that made the hunting better for us, as there weren’t many people there. But I would prefer an open free use of the place. You know this fence, it’s a pain in the ass,” he said.

Baker and the others throw their boats over the fence and get inside anyway, with the blessing of local law enforcement. But not everyone can do it.

“We have a lot of handicapped and disabled people who are currently not allowed to use the disable right because they can’t access it,” Baker said.

Philip Searles, owner of the nearby Iron River Ranch, put up the fence. In September, the Texas Department of Transportation requested that Surls remove the fence because it was on their right-of-way. When nothing happened, TxDOT turned the case over to the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Neither Baker nor his lawyer have yet heard from the attorney general’s office. So last week, Save the Cutoff announced two new lawsuits, one against Henderson County and one against Phillip Searls and Iron River Ranch.

The lawsuit against Henderson County concerns a road that people once used to access a section of the track.

The road was part of a park leased to the county and led to a boat ramp where people could enter the water. Save the Cutoff asks the judge to declare that the road is actually Henderson County property so it can be maintained and used as an access point for the Cutoff.

Clint Davis, Henderson County Attorney, doesn’t know if the road belongs to the county. But he believes Searles should be involved in the lawsuit as it goes through his property.

“Maybe in the end we don’t care,” Davis said. “If it’s a ring road, we’ll go there and make it a ring road. I just don’t know how it will work and how we can even go back there and restore it without Mr. Searles’ involvement in this court decision.”

Along with the fencing work, Sourles also excavated the soil around the stretch and moved it to create a larger buffer between the water and the road, which violated the Clean Water Act, according to the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Searles could face fines and an order to cancel the dredging, but that hasn’t happened yet. Save the Cutoff sent a notice that it plans to file a lawsuit against Surls for these violations if no action is taken by March 10.

“We’re not trying to break anyone, we just want our access to property back, and we want the environmental things to be restored,” Baker said.

Neither Searles nor his attorney responded to an interview request for this story. He hasn’t said much in public since it all started, although in November some people who lived in the area received an anonymous letter saying that the Save the Cutoff group didn’t have the facts, and that the owner of the property “implemented their right to protect their private property and livestock.”

The person who wrote the letter said that he was not a real estate owner, but simply a local resident who was tired of “misinformation and lies.” He also accused Save the Cutoff of encouraging people to donate their money to a lost cause.

The group raised funds for legal fees. Baker plans to host a crappie fishing tournament this spring to raise money.

“This will help us talk a little more about it,” Baker said. “We want to involve young people in this fishing tournament, maybe there will be a separate class for them. You know, just try to come up with something to try and get everyone to open their eyes a little more.”

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