SBC tries to condemn business
By 05/15/2003 00:00:00
Midlothian ‘Mom & Pop' fight back
The Ellis County Press
MIDLOTHIAN - Billy and Renee McElheney said they woke up to their worst nightmare last Thanksgiving.
Surveyors, after being caught chiseling marks on his parking lot, informed Billy and his Automation Technical Support business, that Southwestern Bell telephone, which offices just a block over from his business east of downtown, hired them and wanted his building and property.
Automation, at 301 W. Ave. F, was the former Midlothian Post Office and is separated from the Bell building on Seventh Street by McElheney's parking lot and an empty lot, belonging to Bell.
'That was the first time we heard it was Southwestern Bell,' he said. 'We pulled up...and there was a group of guys with their pylons set up and everything. I asked them [surveyors], ‘Are you customary to going onto private property without permission...''
Since that incident, McElheney said he has received three offers for his property; Southwestern Bell, they told him, could only extend south to be able to store their massive equipment.
Lots across the street were vacant, but could not be used, according to letters sent from Bell representatives to McElheney.
The vacant lot used to house an old, run-down auto repair shop untill Bell offered the owner 42 years of annual income for it to make room for the expansion.
Then, he said, things started getting 'ugly.'
Bell, according to correspondence between the two businesses, threatened to sue McElheney after he denied them a second survey of the land.
'I told them they had al-
ready surveyed the land, so what do they need a [second] survey for?' he said.
But he eventually conceded into letting them back on to his property.
'We're the week of Thanksgiving. They told us we had seven days [to give them a quote on how much we would sell for] ... I pointed out, ‘Hey guys, you do realize this is Thanksgiving.' We [needed] at least 30 days.
'They came back and said we have 10 business days.'
Remodeling put on hold
The McElheneys said they have poured thousands of dollars worth of oak doors, oak trim, stone tile floors and super-absorption acoustic ceiling tiles into the old post office, but there's still more work to do.
They have boxes of more oak trim to install and double-pane glass windows to place in a spacious conference room.
Eventually, Billy McElheney said, he would like open up his own restaraunt towards the back of the building, near the area where surveyors chiseled the parking lot.
However, the remaining work has been put on hold, because of the situation involving the telephone company.
'Mentally, we told oursevles that this isn't our building anymore. You'd have to give me some outrageous number to get me to move.
'What they offered would just barely buy the land. But they didn't quite understand what that meant.'
Bell offered $300,000 for the building, the parking lot, and the remaining slices of yard surrounding the business.
After telling them he wasn't interested after the third offer, McElheney asked for a $1 million price tag for the property, a new building and a temporary lease fee on another building.
Bell then followed up their first lawsuit threat with a real one, claiming McElheney's property needed to be condemned so Bell could place telephone poles and lines.
According to state law, Southwestern Bell, though private, was still a public utility, and could use a city's power of eminent domain to seize land for the placement of poles.
'Basically, [Bell was saying] take it or leave it ... because it's for Southwestern Bell and they have eminent domain. And they can take away your building whether you want or not. So you might as well take this offer and make it easy,' McElheney said.
'When it's going to put me out of business, I'm not going to take it. I'm definitely not going to lie down for them.'
After being served court papers, McElheney had two options: try to convince a special, three-member panel of commissioners hearing the lawsuit to drop the case altogether at a public hearing May 20 ... or get things ready to sell off the business he has run for so long.
'It's like they don't have to play by the rules,' he said. 'They have this ancient law they can fall back on ... they can literally offer us three times, call us an unlikely buyer, or something to that effect, and then proceed with eminent domain.
'To be threatened by lawsuits ... is insane in my opinion. How far do you go, being a nice guy?'
The lawsuit states McElheney will pay for all court costs, attorney fees and supply the funds for the insurance, real estate taxes and title after Bell seizes the land for the telephone poles.
On two separate occasions, according to Bell employee Chris Bone, who works out of the Midlothian office, the telephone company indicated it 'should not be necessary to take [the] property in its entirety but only a small portion' of McElheney's parking lot.
McElheney said even though the future expansion of his building would be hampered by Southwestern Bell's deal for the parking lot, he would agree to negotiate.
'If it gets them to go away, I'm all for it,' he said.
'All this time we're thinking they want to tear down the building,' McElheney said. 'Why [finish up] with the interior; I'm just selling them on the nice office space.'
Then, McElheney pitched a final offer before the lawsuit was filed.
'The last thing I told them was, ‘When you tell me that you have a building built that matches the specifications of what we've done here and I can walk out of this building and walk into a new location and it hasn't cost me a dime ... that is when negotiations can begin.'
'They didn't like hearing that.'
People around the community know the McElheneys for being very generous during the holidays.
Each Haloween, the McElheney's spend nearly $4,000 on big candy bars to give out to kids Trick-or-Treating. They also empty Christmas angel trees each year, buying the 'big-ticket' items like bicycles for the less-fortunate.
'The kids love us because they know we give out the big candy bars,' Renee McElheney said. 'We're well-known here.
'We give a lot to the [Midlothian] chamber. We won the Christmas lighting contest last year; we put up seven, seven-foot trees and had the place all lit up.
'But we [might not] be able to do that anymore.'
The McElheneys have even donated - rent-free - an office in their building for Midlothian Bible Church pastor Dave Wyrtzen's radio ministry.
Two staff members office out of the complex, near where the McElheneys also donated space to a physical therapist.
And on top of the 'nightmare' the couple said they have had to endure, Billy's widowed mother, who recently had knee surgery and cannot move around as she used to, had a neighbor, who also happens to be a Southwestern Bell employee, install a phone line near her bed.
During the course of the conversation, McElheney's mother said, 'It's a shame [Bell] is going to tear down the old post office.'
Acting a little confused and dumbfounded, according to his mother, the employee replied, 'Oh, no ma'am, they're not going to tear that building down. That's a done deal...'
The employee, McElheney's mother continued, said part of the building her husband and son spent thousands of dollars fixing up, would be home to his office.
'So that was like grab a big thing of salt and just throw it on the wound,' McElheney said. 'Talk about adding insult to injury.'
The employee, McElheney said, had no idea the woman was his mom.
She didn't get the employee's name, however.
The statements by the employee contradict the lawsuit, however; in the court documents, obtained by The Ellis County Press, Bell plans to condemn the McElheney's property for the installation of telephone poles.
'…a telephone or telegraph corporation may enter land in which a private person or a corporation owns a fee or lesser estate to,' stated the documents. 'Finally, SBC has the right under Section 181.084 to acquire the land necessary for the construction of its telephone lines through the power of eminent domain.'
Now, the McElheneys are awaiting the May 20 public hearing before the special court.
Half of Billy McElheney feels it will be a positive outcome. But the other part has him waiting nervously.
'I haven't asked for this,' he said. 'If this were [a regular neighbor], I would have to come to you, and say, ‘Hey, I would really like to acquire your property.' I would not come with a contract that says you're responsibile for everything: taxes and the insurance stuff ... You don't come to work asking for something like this.
'The last time I checked, I still lived in America. But it doesn't feel like it at this point.'