A sign along U.S. 80 leading into Hawkins and that caused legal disputes between the city and a church congregation has been taken down.

Before sunrise Friday, city of Hawkins crews took down the sign, which read “Jesus Welcomes You to Hawkins,” Police Chief Manfred Gilow said.

A municipal street will be constructed at the site, Hawkins City Secretary Dona Jordan said.

“We are fixing to put a street in on our easement,” Jordan said. “That is our platted street.”

The sign had been a point of controversy since it was erected next to a Hawkins coffeehouse near the city’s eastern edge in early 2015. Members of the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church and others stood watch from time to time, they said, to protect it.

Church members now have asked faith-based leaders and attorneys to take an interest in their cause, church trustee Mark McDonald said Friday.

“The city employees destroyed our church property, pulled up our crosses and destroyed everything,” McDonald said. He said he was notified of the action by police.

“We’re treating it like a hate crime of religious discrimination that was conspired by the city. We have enough documents to prove that,” McDonald said. “The city was warned (Thursday) by our attorneys not to touch it and not to bother it. There’s been closed meetings, closed records (and) a lot of things wrong.”

He accused the city of breaking several laws, saying that federal and state agencies are probing not only matters involving the sign but other municipal issues in Hawkins.

“I’ve got eight open records violations alleged against the city,” McDonald said. “They were in full knowledge that they were violating the law.”

Police officers responded to the site about 7 a.m. Friday on a disturbance call and found the sign had been taken down, he said. During a subsequent investigation, officers learned it was city crews who removed it.

“I knew it was in the working for many, many months … to change the street to have 90-degree access to the highway as it is now,” Gilow said.

Since 2015, the sign stood on property owned by the Jesus Christ Open Altar Church, McDonald said.

The city contended that it held an easement on the property, where a 1909 Texas and Pacific Railway plat conveyed a fee-simple title to the city.

However, the church asserted the city abandoned its interest in the property in 1994.

A Wood County court ruled in the city’s favor two years ago, and in December 2017, the 12th Court of Appeals in Tyler affirmed the trial court’s decision.

McDonald said he’s been advised by his attorney that the legal ruling “was totally voidable.”

It took more than a year of planning and consulting with prospective companies before the city took its first step toward constructing the proposed Ash Street, Gilow said. That first step happened Friday.

“Any structural sign on the property has to be removed,” Gilow said, adding that the Texas Department of Transportation forbids anything that obstructs drivers’ view within 50 feet of the intersection with U.S. 80.

“It was a Jesus sign, but it would have been any sign,” the chief said. “It has nothing to do with it. As chief of police here, we’re just here to keep the peace, and we just respond. We did not know when (city workers) took it down.”