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District judge throws out lawsuit about Sinton wind turbine dispute

SINTON – A judge dismissed a lawsuit about a Sinton wind turbine project today, saying the court doesn’t have jurisdiction to hear the case.

The ruling effectively halts the Sinton school district’s plan to build two turbines on its high school campus unless the district decides to appeal to a higher court.

Superintendent Steve VanMatre and the district’s attorney, Roger Hepworth, said they would discuss the situation with the school board.

The district sued the city of Sinton to try to advance a plan to use federal grant money to build the turbines for education and energy savings.

Attorneys for the city successfully argued that the court doesn’t have authority to hear the case because the school district didn’t follow administrative procedures after two city boards rejected measures that would have allowed the wind project to be built.

The school district had requested exceptions to the city’s wind turbine ordinance, but the Sinton Board of Adjustment rejected the request.

Under state law, the city’s attorneys said, the school district should have appealed that decision in court within 10 days but failed to meet the deadline.

Attorneys for the school district said the court has jurisdiction over the case because the lawsuit isn’t an appeal of the board’s decision. Instead, they said, they were seeking an injunction and a ruling that the city boards violated open government laws and that the city’s zoning rules don’t apply to the school’s turbine project.

Visiting Judge Dick Alcala’s ruling means the court won’t hear the school district’s request to void the city boards’ decisions based on the Texas Open Meetings Act.

When the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission met to consider the wind turbine project and the variances to the turbine ordinance, they deliberated in closed session before announcing in public that they recommended against the variances. The Caller-Times objected to the closed session as a violation of the Open Meetings Act, which requires government bodies to conduct public business in the open, with narrow exceptions.

At the same meeting, the Board of Adjustments also met in executive session, and the newspaper again objected. An attorney for the city later said the session was allowed because the board was consulting with its attorney.

Hepworth maintained that the public was left out of the process because of the closed deliberations of the two boards. And he said the public was excluded again because city council didn’t meet to consider settlement offers from the school district.

James McKibben, an attorney for the city, said he couldn’t comment because settlement offers are confidential. Whether to accept the offers “would be up to city management,” he said.

The plan to build two 155-foot turbines at the high school has led to heated public meetings and calls for the city manager and school superintendent to resign or be fired.

Also, a group of residents is circulating a petition to recall three city council members who wanted to fire the city manager and city secretary amid the dispute.

Supporters say the project, using $974,000 in federal grant money and $243,000 in district funds, would give students a rare opportunity to apply data directly from the turbines to math and science lessons, giving them a hands-on look at an emerging South Texas industry and adding a progressive touch to the city’s skyline.

Opponents say the turbines would be unsightly, saddle the district with unforeseen maintenance costs, hurt area property values and waste public money when the economy already suffers.