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Lease negotiations still plaguing residents

Although homeowners in the 109 are looking to renew natural gas contracts in the next year can be assured, in part, by stable prices, it is residents who never signed on the dotted line who are now facing uncertainty.

The closure of mineral rights leasing opportunities to various Fort Worth neighborhoods, many within the 109, in October 2008 is an ongoing legal issue.
Dallas-based attorney Kip Petroff said his firm and two others, Riddle & Willams, P.C. and Mathis & Donheiser, P.C., formed North Texas Lease Litigation to assist residents in pursuing lawsuits against various energy and land companies. Petroff said his background in and prior experience with mass action suits, like this one, led him to become involved.

According to the North Texas Lease Litigation website, the group has decided to proceed with residents’ lawsuits on an individual basis, instead of combining cases and filing them as a class action suit. The site includes links to individual litigation documents in which each plaintiff, or a group several plaintiffs, has filed a suit against a certain company or companies.

NTXLL, as Petroff refers to the group in writing, represents, among others, residents from the Southwest Fort Worth Alliance, described in the past as a “supergroup” of area neighborhood associations. The legal team is suing gas companies for the original lease signing bonus, punitive damages and attorney’s fees, he wrote in an e-mail. NTXLL has roughly 500 SFWA clients as of the Sept. 15 deadline for claims submissions.

Tolli Thomas, spokesperson for the Southwest Fort Worth Alliance, said the organization formed two years ago with the intent to aid in and clarify the leasing process for local homeowners. She said the group was also concerned with potential environmental impacts of drilling and the preservation of communities where wells will be located.

According to the group’s website, it aims to protect members’ rights and quality of life while negotiating competitive and fair mineral rights contracts. At peak membership, 28 neighborhood associations covering some 8,000 acres of land in south Fort Worth were part of the SFWA, Thomas said. The Westcliff West neighborhood is one of the member organizations. “Our most significant concern was the lease language and trying to protect, from a financial prospective, the royalty revenue and how that would be distributed, and what costs we would be on the hook for,” Thomas said.

Some of the same Fort Worth homeowners who joined the alliance, lobbied for fairer leases and received promises of contracts from Vantage Energy are still without a binding offer, Thomas said. The previously agreed-upon $27,500-per-acre lease rate, with a true 23 percent no-cost royalty, was never made available to some residents after Vantage and its financial backers ceased leasing in the area, she said.

“The bottom line for the suit is to enforce the lease agreements— whether it’s a person who signed the lease and then was not paid their money, or whether it’s a person who was told ‘You will not be left out (of leasing),’” she said.

Petroff said the next step in the legal process would be filing more than 1,000 total claims by mid-October with the help of all three firms. He said trials for some residents outside of the Southwest Fort Worth Alliance have been set for November and December, with three of the alliance cases set for trial in February 2011.

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