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TxDOT tells landowner to remove fence blocking access to beloved East Texas lake

A new fence lines FM 1667 and a lake five miles south of Trinidad, known as the Cutoff to local residents, on Sept. 6, 2022, in East Texas.
Michael Minasi
Texas Standard
A new fence lines FM 1667 and a lake five miles south of Trinidad, known as the Cutoff to local residents, on Sept. 6, 2022, in East Texas.

The Texas Department of Transportation has ordered a landowner in East Texas to remove a fence that blocks access to the Cutoff, a long lake about 75 miles southeast of Dallas that used to be part of the Trinity River. It’s a unique body of water that generations of Texans have used for outdoor recreation.

The landowner, Phillip Surls, bought property around much of the Cutoff in December of 2021. In February, he had a fence put up in front of the entrance to the Cutoff; locals have lobbied for the fence’s removal since then. The Texas Standard’s Michael Marks spoke about the significance of TxDOT’s notice to the landowner. Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: I was fascinated by the original story that you did on this, and I understand there’s some news regarding access to the Cutoff. What exactly is happening?

Michael Marks: That’s right. A few days ago, I got a call from Dustin Baker, who’s the leader of a group called Save the Cutoff. And Baker told me that he had recently received a call from a local engineer from the Texas Department of Transportation.

Dustin Baker (via phone): And he told me that TxDOT had issued a certified letter to the landowner stating that he needed to have his fence removed within 30 days.

Michael Marks: So I reached out to TxDOT to confirm that, and it’s true. The agency has given notice to the landowner, a man named Philip Surls, saying that he has 30 days to remove the fence. TxDOT determined that the fence is on their right-of-way and the landowner did not have permission to put it there. So it’s got to go.

Okay. How long ago was that?

Michael Marks: That was on September 29 or so. So it looks like till the end of October.

Has the owner of the property taken any steps to remove the fence?

Michael Marks: Not as far as I know. The fence is still there as of yesterday. So he has until the end of this month.

So what does the landowner have to say about this? And is he saying that he’s going to move that fence? 

Michael Marks: Well, publicly, he’s not saying anything. Neither Surls nor his lawyer have responded to any of my calls or emails since I started covering this story. I don’t know whether he plans to comply with the notice or challenge it in some way. For what it’s worth, Dustin Baker from Save the Cutoff – he’s known Surls his whole life, and Baker thinks that this is not the end of the story.

Dustin Barker (via phone): No, I don’t think he’ll take the fence down. I mean, that’s just me thinking, just knowing. You know, I think there’ll be some sort of something that can be filed in court and tie the fence up, you know.

Let’s back up for just a moment. This is a lot of attention we’re paying to a fence in East Texas. Why is this so important for folks there?

Michael Marks: So the Cutoff, it’s a place where people have gone for generations and generations. It’s a calm body of water. You know, a lot of folks, when they want to take their kids out to learn how to drive a boat, for example, it’s great for that. It’s a great place to take your family, and it’s also protected by law. In 1931, the Texas Legislature passed a bill explicitly ensuring access to the people of Texas to hunt and fish in this area. And this fence prevents them from doing that.

So what happens next here?

Michael Marks: So, like we said, we’ll know by the end of October whether Surls is going to comply with this order. In the meantime, the Army Corps of Engineers is still conducting an investigation into some of the dredging work that Surls had done around the Cutoff. He had backhoe moved tons of dirt around the area as part of that fence work. And the Corps is looking into whether that violated the Clean Water Act.

Lastly, Save the Cutoff is still working with an environmental attorney here in Austin. They’ve threatened Surls with litigation if access to the Cutoff isn’t restored. They’ve also sent a letter to Henderson County asking them to restore access to an old road that could be an alternate way to get to the Cutoff. That road has a gate over it. It hasn’t been maintained for many years and it runs parallel to the Cutoff. So could be an alternate access point. They say that they may move forward with litigation against the county if that road isn’t made usable. The letter from TxDOT hasn’t changed their position on that.

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