Fort Bend County judge temporarily blocks demolition of Needville water tower
Demolition of a World War II-era water tower in Needville was blocked Friday (Dec. 21) after a Fort Bend County judge issued a temporary restraining order in connection with a civil suit recently filed against the city.
Preservation efforts have been ongoing for roughly two years after city officials first proposed tearing down the water tower, which many residents argue is an important piece of the city’s history. City officials recently again discussed tearing down the water tower and at the Nov. 14 city council meeting, Mayor Stuart and the Needville City Council voted 3-2 to hire a local air conditioning contractor to demolish the tower.
Needville residents Diane and Larry Cario were among those who hoped the water tower, which still pumps city water, could be taken offline, restored and preserved as a city landmark. In a Dec. 17 letter to the council, the couple wrote they felt betrayed by Mayor Stuart and other elected officials who promised to save the tower during their election campaigns. They urged city officials to seek grant funding from state historical organizations and to invest additional time and effort to preserve the historical structure.
“Anything worth doing right that has the potential to both beautify and benefit our city and its future by attracting visitors and bringing new business to our tight-knit, friendly community is worth all of the time, energy, and passion it takes. Just look at how long it has taken the city of Houston to find a resolution to refurbish the Astrodome,” the couple wrote.
In contrast, Mayor Stuart has argued those who want to preserve the tower have had more than enough time to raise funds needed to repair and restore the tower to working condition.
“It’s been over two years and they’ve done nothing. I can’t babysit these people,” Stuart said by phone. “People elected me to do what is right for the city and I don’t have time to worry about the water tower. I need to move on.”
According to a 2016 estimate by Dunham Engineering provided by mayor Stuart, repairing the water tower to remain servicing city water would cost $350,000. The cost to restore the structure for use as a landmark was not included in the estimate.
Spearheading efforts to save the water tower were members of the Needville Preservation Group, a non-profit formed by area residents who raised over $13,000 for the water tower. Lisa Thomas Morphis, who serves as director for the group, said she provided Mayor Stuart with a signed agreement from a restoration company totaling approximately $58,000. Using an additional $30,000 in funds allocated by the Needville Economic Development Corporation, Morphis and others argued preservation was possible without spending money from the city’s general fund.
Instead, at the Nov. 17 council meeting, Mayor Stuart and the city council approved a contract for $45,000 with Rex Mechanical, a local air conditioning contractor, to demolish the tower.
Those plans now remain on hold due to a suit filed by former Needville City Councilmember Rick Sinclair and Korey Garza, who owns a business located next to the water tower. According to court records, test results from a state accredited testing laboratory showed that the tower was coated with six layers of lead-based paint with high lead content throughout. In the original petition, attorney Clifford Vacek argued that if demolition proceeded, the area near the water tower would be exposed to environmental contamination.
Sinclair, an engineer for a large Houston firm who owns property near the tower, also claims city officials neglected to file needed permits with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) to dismantle the tower. Sinclair says he has filed complaints with the TCEQ, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and intends to file complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Texas Municipal League.
According to Sinclair, the city should have filed for a permit from the TCEQ to handle hazardous materials to make sure it is safe for the people who live around the tower and the workers who will be involved.
“The contractor hired by the city council is a nice guy, but I don’t believe he is licensed or accredited to handle this level of lead abatement,” Sinclair said.
“I also question if the contract was a single-source contract and if it was put out for bids,” Sinclair said. “When I was on the city council, we always bid out our contracts to make sure we got the best price and most qualified company to work for us.”
Mayor Stuart and other city officials did not respond to emails seeking information about the approved contract and the details of the demolition.
A hearing to consider the civil suit is scheduled Jan. 19 before Judge Maggie Perez-Jaramillo of the Fort Bend County 400th Judicial District Courtroom.