Neighbors sue Terry Black’s over barbecue smoke

6:38 p.m Thursday, July 30, 2015 Local

This story has been updated with comment from Terry Black’s Barbecue.

A group of 15 Austin residents have filed a lawsuit against Terry Black’s Barbecue for negligence and nuisance stemming from the smoke the barbecue restaurant emits to cook its meats.

The suit comes after more than a year of back-and-forth conversations between the neighbors and the restaurant’s management about how to resolve the issue of smoke drifting into the neighbors’ yards and homes, which included individual negotiations and even a proposed City Council ordinance. The lawsuit, filed Tuesday, escalates the issue to a legal affair.

The plaintiffs, who live in the neighborhoods behind the restaurant, allege that the smoke from the South Austin restaurant’s smokestacks — which they say burn 15 hours a day, seven days a week — drifts into the neighbors’ properties and into their homes, “adversely affecting Plaintiffs’ use and enjoyment of their property.”

In an emailed statement, Terry Black’s Barbecue denied the implication that the restaurant had not tried to address the situation.

“The lawsuit, among other issues, alleges that we have chosen to ignore our neighbors and to blithely (in a joyful manner) continue placing our neighbors at risk of physical harm by polluting the air with wood smoke,” the statement said. “We strongly disagree with these allegations and will vigorously defend our actions in and out of court.”

Guy Watts, a neighborhood resident who is representing the group as its lawyer, said the two sides couldn’t come to the amicable resolution they had sought. Watts said neighbors had asked the restaurant to smoke its meat outside city limits, as Mike Black’s brother does at his Black’s Restaurant location on Guadalupe Street.

The Black brothers are part of the famous barbecue family which has served the Central Texas area since 1932 and branched out to other locations from its original restaurant in Lockhart.

In May 2014, Terry Black’s Barbecue opened at 1003 Barton Springs Road, a location that had served as a restaurant for four decades. Within a few months, neighbors began complaining about the smoke, claiming it was a nuisance and was affecting some residents’ health.

The plaintiffs, who have lived in the neighborhoods behind the restaurant between seven and 35 years, said in the lawsuit they haven’t complained about smoke from the location before.

After initial conversations, Black tried to resolve the issue with neighbors by changing the restaurant’s approach to smoking wood and spending thousands of dollars to adjust the barbecue pit.

In May, City Council Member Sabino Renteria tried to propose a city solution to smoke emissions from restaurants. The council’s economic opportunity commission shot down an ordinance and its health and human services committee is still kicking around the issue.

Meanwhile, the two sides continued talks, but Watts said the neighbors decided to file a lawsuit when Black said he wouldn’t begin smoking his meat off the restaurant’s premises. Instead, he opted for a technique that is supposed to inject air into the smoke stack and dissipate the resulting smoke for the neighbors, Watts said.

But that technique, Watts said, has possibly made things worse.

“It’s now coming out at a faster rate,” Watts said, “probably not just into our yards any more, but also affecting more people.”

Terry Black’s Barbecue took issue with claims that there has been no progress to mitigate the smoke.

“Some have said publicly that there has been no progress made to reduce the smoke in the area,” the statement read. “That is false, misleading and disingenuous information.”

The restaurant said new equipment such as scrubbers have “greatly reduced the amount of concentrated smoke” coming out of the smoke stacks.

Watts added that his property value and that of other neighbors has gone down significantly since the restaurant moved into the neighborhood. Watts said he believes the drop is because of concerns about smoke near and around the homes. Some neighbors have said they no longer keep their windows open because the smoke from the restaurant will clog their homes.

The plaintiffs are seeking the loss in market value from the permanent injury they say the smoke has produced. The plaintiffs say the restaurant’s negligence to their complaints has resulted or will result in medical care expenses, physical pain, mental anguish and physical impairments.