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Landowner demands record of payment to Ponca Tribe in water pipeline dispute

A Ponca City dentist is demanding documents from the city of Enid to uncover how much the Ponca Tribe was paid for rights of way for a huge water pipeline, but the city argues that the request is vague.

The court battle between James Merrifield and Enid is the last remaining hiccup in the city’s quest to lay a pipeline from the Arkansas River – a project for which it paid the Osage Nation $1 million to avoid litigation over water rights and also granted the Osage up to 8 million gallons of water a day should the tribe desire it.

On Nov. 17, lawyers for the city and Merrifield had heated exchanges in Osage County District Court, with Merrifield attorney Brad Hilton accusing Enid attorney Danny Williams of doubletalk and misleading the court during previous hearings – charges to which Williams took offense.

“He filed a pleading accusing me of lying to the court instead of picking up the phone and calling me,” Williams, the former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma, told Osage County District Court Judge Stuart Tate.

In July, Enid and the Ponca Tribe announced that they had settled a long-simmering dispute over the pipeline crossing four parcels of land in which the Ponca had an interest. The Enid News reported that the city agreed to pay just over $7,200 for the rights of way over those parcels and that the city had also agreed to pay $4.2 million to the tribe for a “forbearance agreement” similar to the $1 million agreement it had with the Osage Nation. A forbearance agreement is one in which both sides in a dispute agree to relinquish their claims – thus giving up their legal claims.

Merrifield owns 198 acres graced by what Hilton repeatedly described as a “pristine lake” that the dentist fears will be damaged by pipeline runoff. In total, the pipeline, which will be six feet under the ground, will cover three linear acres of Merrifield’s land. Appraisers awarded Merrifield $47,700 for the land, but he has yet to get paid because he is pressing suit.

At the hearing, Williams said that Hilton’s request for all documents concerning the deal between Enid and the Ponca Tribe for tracts of land east of the Arkansas River lacked detail and that Hilton needed court approval to depose Enid City Manager Jerald Gilbert a second time.

Tate said he will rule on the matter soon.

Hilton also argued that damages to Merrifield’s land cannot be accurately determined until the pipeline is actually in the ground; a jury trial on damages is expected to take place in the spring or fall of 2023.

“The fact is we don’t know what the damages are yet,” Hilton told Tate. “The pipeline needs to be in the ground to determine damages.”

Earlier this year, Merrifield had attempted to stop construction of the pipeline on his property. To do that, Tate required him to post a $500,000 bond (Williams had asked for $7 million). Merrifield appealed that ruling to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, which denied him a hearing.

According to the Enid newspaper, the water pipeline required negotiating 232 easements – and easements over the land in which the Ponca Tribe claimed an interest were the last ones remaining.


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Louise Red Corn
Louise Red Corn has suffered from wanderlust for decades: She has lived and worked as a journalist and photographer in Rome, Italy, New York City, Detroit, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where she published The Bigheart Times for 12 years. She loves diving in-depth into just about any topic but is especially fond of covering legal issues, perhaps because her parents were both lawyers. She is married to Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, who enticed her to move to the Osage Reservation in 2004. She and her husband live south of Pawhuska with one extremely large dog named Max, one extremely energetic dog named Pepper, and, if he bothers to make an appearance, a surly cat named Stinky.

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