by Cameron Langford
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 of Centerville Texas, 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.
Oregon and the Bundy Stand-off
Does anyone remember the armed standoff in Oregon not too long ago over the 2 ranchers, father and son, who were sentenced to federal prison for a control burning on federal land?
Dwight Lincoln Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven Dwight Hammond, 46, were sentenced on Oct. 7 to five years in prison for illegally setting fires on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property near Diamond, Ore.
The ranchers had already served shorter sentences because the federal judge originally overseeing their case said the five-year minimum requirement “would shock the conscience.”
The Hammonds were subject to re-sentencing because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals threw out those original prison terms for igniting fires in 2001 and 2006 as too lenient.
Previously, U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan, who is now retired, found that a five-year term would violate the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment because it’s “grossly disproportionate to the severity of the offenses here.”
Dwight Lincoln Hammond, who was only convicted of the 2001 fire, received three months in prison, while his son was sentenced to one year, followed by three years of supervised release for each man.
Federal prosecutors challenged those sentences, and the 9th Circuit agreed that judges don’t have the “discretion to disregard” such requirements.
The appeals court rejected claims by the ranchers’ defense attorney that the federal arson statute was intended to punish terrorism, rather than burning to remove invasive species or improve rangeland.
At the Oct. 7 re-sentencing hearing, U.S. District Judge Ann Aiken said the ranchers cannot disregard the law in regard to setting fires on BLM property.
“You don’t have the right to make decisions on public lands when they’re not yours,” she said.
Aiken compared the situation to “eco-terrorism” cases in which activists damaged property in reaction to environmental decisions with which they disagreed.
“They didn’t necessarily like how the government was handling things, either,” she said.
Similarly, people who violate hunting and fishing regulations are also subject to sanctions, Aiken said.
“The rules are there for a reason,” she said.
In January 2016, armed men led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy seized control of the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon. The occupation ended 40 days later on February 11, when the final occupier willingly went into custody. On February 10, 2016, Bundy posted to his Facebook page that he was on his way to the refuge, in part saying “Wake up patriots! Wake up militia! It’s time!!!!” He was arrested a few hours later at Portland International Airport
The Bundy’s nor the militia groups of Utah, Nevada or Oregon have likely ever heard of Steve Torno nor would they likely sympathize with him. In comparison between the Oregon Ranchers and the Texas Developer it seems clear one had good intentions, yet they were sent to prison while the other clearly involved malicious greed and was criminal, yet no criminal charges were ever filed. We inquired about the fine and were informed if was over a million dollars and was paid. Interesting, we had no idea a Centerville Texas realtor made that kind of money. Steve Torno of Centerville and no one else with Circle T Realty wished to comment on this story.
We spoke by telephone to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and was eventually directed to a Little Rock Arkansas office where a liason with legal affairs spoke to us.
We inquired why Mr Torno had not received criminal charges like the ranchers in Oregon for example. Leonard, the spokesman for the Corps of Engineers informed us that was because he was able to pay the fine. So, your saying if he had not been able to pay $2.7 million he would have been charged with a criminal offense? “More than likely yes.” He said.