Recent rain left puddles of standing water on the baseball field at 1025 Judiway St., where grass and weeds have grown on parts of the infield dirt and bird nests have formed on the netting that keeps foul balls from encroaching on adjacent property as well as the road.
The dugouts and outfield fence also show signs of age and prolonged use, as do the wooden bleachers and small announcer’s box behind home plate. They all could use some renovation or repair, and a property dotted with trash and other debris late Tuesday afternoon could have used some cleaning.
Despite the field’s dilapidated condition, it remains a valuable commodity, so much so that a pair of local youth organizations have been locked in a year-long court battle over the right to call it their own. The Heights Lions Club has asserted ownership of the property and wants to sell it to a developer, while the Oaks Dads’ Club (ODC), which leased the field for more than 20 years and claims to have used it for at least 40, also claims to be its rightful owner through adverse possession.
“It’s super sad,” Heights Lions Club president David Hite said, “that one is trying to defraud the other.”
The dispute started in June 2020, when Hite wrote a letter to ODC saying its annual lease would not be renewed at the end of the year and the youth sports organization needed to vacate the property and remove its possessions before the start of 2021. The Heights Lions Club had received offers to buy the 2.7-acre tract of land, Hite said, and discovered it was technically owned by an entity called Oak Forest Lions Club Youth Stadium Inc., which was affiliated with the former Oak Forest Lions Club, which merged with the Heights organization in 2014.
But the corporation that owned the field had dissolved and lost its charter with the state of Texas in the 1980s, Hite said. So in an attempt to clear up the title of the property so it could be sold, Hite said the Heights Lions Club hired an attorney and filed a lawsuit against Oak Forest Lions Club Youth Stadium Inc. in state district court in January 2020.
That legal proceeding and subsequent letter from Hite prompted ODC to intervene in the lawsuit last July, according to Sean Jez, a former ODC board president who serves as the organization’s attorney. Jez claims the Heights Lions Club leased the field to ODC under false pretenses and that ODC should assume ownership of the property as a nonprofit that has historically used and maintained the field and has an intention to keep it operating as an amenity for local youth.
“The Heights Lions Club is trying to say that they own that property, but they don’t,” Jez said. “… When Oaks Dads’ Club was quote unquote leasing the property, we were under the impression it was owned by Oak Forest Lions Club, when it in fact was owned by some other entity that was dissolved by the state of Texas.”
ODC sought a temporary injunction last December to keep it from being evicted until the ownership question could be settled by the court, and also filed motions for default and summary judgments in its favor. All three motions have been denied by Judge Latosha Lewis Payne, according to Harris County court records.
Court records also show that Payne is in the process of appointing an ad-litem attorney to represent the interests of Oak Forest Lions Club Youth Stadium Inc., since a representative of the corporation has not been identified. Hite and Jez both said the case is at a standstill until the ad-litem attorney is appointed and fulfills his or her role.
Fair or foul?
Hite, who described the denial of the injunction as “huge” for the case of the Heights Lions Club, said it ended up evicting ODC at the end of 2020 and has since leased the property to the Houston Sports and Social Club, which operates recreational leagues for adults, at a rental rate of $4,000 per month. ODC had been paying the Heights Lions Club $4,000 per year to lease the facility, according to court records, and Jez said ODC had been subleasing the field to the Houston Sports and Social Club.
Hite said the subleasing arrangement violated the terms of the most recent lease between the Heights Lions Club and ODC, which he said was drafted by Jez in 2019. From 1996 until 2019, Hite said ODC paid annual rent of $2,500.
“You cannot sublease the property, which they did, and they were making a bunch of money on it,” Hite said.
Jez has argued that since the field was owned by a nonprofit for the benefit of the community, Texas law requires ownership to be transferred to another nonprofit and the property’s use to remain the same. He said the Heights Lions Club’s stated intention to sell the property to a developer would go against the spirit of that precedent if it were determined to be the rightful owner.
The field has dimensions suited for the Pony League level, which is for players of middle school age.
“It’s a big loss to not have that field,” Jez said. “The older boys, they need a big field to practice on and to play on. They can’t just go anywhere for a field that size.”
According to Hite, though, there is no longer a public need for the field in a community that has grown exponentially during the last several decades. He said the Heights Lions Club discovered there are 30 fields of comparable size within a 3-mile radius of the field on Judiway. This spring, Jez said ODC’s Pony League teams used the organization’s sports complex near the northeast corner of Rena Street and Bingle Road.
Hite also said the sale of the Judiway property, which has a market value of nearly $2.4 million, according to the Harris County Appraisal District, would be a boon to the Heights Lions Club’s mission. Hite said the organization’s main charitable initiative is to fund eye doctor visits and eyeglass purchases for Heights-area kids who need them, and the Lions Club also sponsors local children with disabilities so they can attend Texas Lions Camp in the summertime.
Hite said the Lions Club has a $3.1 million offer for the property from a developer. He also said the organization has spent more than $100,000 on the legal dispute with ODC.
“If we’re going to get this sale done, we can provide over 1,000 pair of glasses per year for students in the Heights,” Hite said.
First, though, Payne must agree with the Heights Lions Club’s assertion that it is the legal owner of the field. And even though she has denied the motions filed so far by ODC, Jez said, “There’s really been nothing decided on the merits as far as who is the rightful owner of the property or who will wind up with the property at this point.”
Hite said he thinks the dispute is more about money than about serving youth in the Heights, Garden Oaks and Oak Forest areas.
“What it boils down to is it’s a $3 million piece of property,” Hite said. “They’re just trying to steal it.”