Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Uncle Sam Calls Texas Developer’s Bluff

BEAUMONT, Texas (CN) - A Texas developer defied the federal government by clearing 22 acres of public land to create a waterfront view of a lake, after the Army Corps of Engineers told him not to, Uncle Sam claims in court.

The United States of America sued Steven Torno dba Circle T. Realty, Michael Horn, his company HORNCO LLC and 10 John Does, on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers.

Torno was primary developer of Tiger Creek Estates, a subdivision in Jasper County, near Sam Rayburn Lake, according to the complaint.

"None of the lots in Tiger Creek are physically adjacent to the waterline at Sam Rayburn Lake," the complaint states. "Rather, the lots are adjacent to Tract 301-1 of the Sam Rayburn Lake, which is federal Flood Control Project.

"Tract 301-1 ('the subject property') is owned in fee simple by the United States of America and managed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers ('USACE') for the operation of the Sam Rayburn Flood Control project.

"USACE manages Tract 301-1 in accordance with its shoreline management policy and maintains vegetation and natural habitat on the shoreline to prevent erosion and provide the public with full use of the recreational development of Sam Rayburn Lake as directed and authorized by Congress."

The tract is public land and may be used only in accord with the Army Corps of Engineers' regulations.

"In its natural state, Tract 301-1 is wooded and brushy and forms an opaque barrier between the Tiger Creek lots and Sam Rayburn Lake," the complaint states. "This wooded buffer provides the public with recreation, erosion control, and habitat preservation benefits but obscures the view of the lake from the Tiger Creek subdivision.

"Clearing Tract 301-1 increases the value of the lots in Tiger Creek by allowing an unobstructed view of the lake and easy access to the shoreline by the private owners in Tiger Creek. Clearing and maintaining a lawn like appearance on Tract 301-1 also creates the false impression of a private shoreline and discourages the public from full use and benefit of public lands.

"Steve Torno met with representatives from the USACE in May of 2008, prior to development of Tiger Creek.

"At that meeting Steve Torno was verbally instructed that no mulching and clearing of United States property was permitted on Tract 301-1.

"In 2011 USACE discovered that approximately 22 acres of its fee lands and been stripped to the ground with a commercial mulching machine."

Torno hired Horn's company, HORNCO, to clear the land, then "sold the lots at a substantially increased value, representing said lots as 'waterfront' property," the government says.

The John Doe defendants own property next to tract 301, and continued to clear it "despite numerous requests to cease and desist trespass upon government lands," the government says.

The United States seeks $2.7 million in damages "representing the value of the timber, ornamental trees, habitat units, and beneficial landscaping destroyed by defendants in their unlawful trespass, jointly and severally from defendants."

It also seeks damages sufficient to restore the land for public use, disgorgement of the increased value of the development, and an injunction to stop defendants from further trespassing on public land.

The government sued for trespass and conspiracy.

Follow @cam_langford
Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.