"It's often difficult to distinguish where the public's interest stops and Bill Pohl's starts. "
Land broker, partnerships give $70,000 to campaigns; officials say they dispense sound policy, not favors
April 19, 1999
When it comes to improving the economy and tax base of Williamson County, it's often difficult to distinguish where the public's interest stops and Bill Pohl's starts.
Pohl, Brown & Associates Inc.'s partnerships are the dominant landowners near the RM 620-U.S. 183 intersection -- what state Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Williamson County, calls the "crown jewel of Williamson County.'' The partnerships' holdings there are among thousands of acres they own in the southwestern part of the county.
Cedar Park has given the partnerships generous zoning, extended water and sewer lines to their property and successfully lobbied the state to transfer control of 6,000 acres -- about a quarter of it belonging to the partnerships -- from Austin to the smaller city.
The county has persuaded the Legislature to reorganize a road district so landowners -- primarily Pohl's partnerships -- paid less in taxes and has endorsed legislation that would keep Austin from stepping up water quality regulation in and around the district.
City and county leaders say those decisions were good policy, not favors repaid.
When city and county leaders did not back his plans wholeheartedly, Pohl went to the Legislature for solutions.
Pohl and his partnerships have cemented their relationships with elected officials with dozens of campaign contributions totaling almost $70,000 from 1994 to 1998.
"Obviously the county commissioners play a big part in our business,'' said Gary F. Brown, vice president of Pohl, Brown. "We want them to be able to listen to what our needs are, and that's about all you're given.''
* From 1994 to 1996, Pohl, Brown was the largest source of campaign contributions for Williamson County commissioners. Company employees and partnerships the
company manages poured more than $25,000 into the campaigns of Williamson County elected officials in those years but made no contributions in 1998.
* Contributions from Pohl, Brown partnerships accounted for two-thirds of the $14,700 that County Commissioner Greg Boatright raised in 1994. Pohl, Brown is the largest landowner in Boatright's precinct, which extends from the Anderson Mill area up the U.S. 183 corridor.
* Pohl, Brown also contributed $2,500 in 1995 and 1996 to five City Council candidates in Cedar Park, accounting for between 33 percent and 59 percent of the contributions they collected in those years. Pohl's partnerships own about 15 percent of the city's land and most of the undeveloped land in the city limits.
When a company Pohl, Brown represented bought the 446-acre Hog Farm from the state last year, Pohl's holdings became even more important, Boatright said.
"The property they control represents just a great deal of the commercial real estate possibilities, the prime areas,'' of the U.S. 183 corridor, Boatright said. "So they have a big impact on my precinct because they do control quite a bit around the (Lakeline) mall and Parmer Lane and the Hog Farm property.'' Nonetheless, he looks out for the best
interests of the county regardless of whether contributors are involved in issues, Boatright said.
While most of their contributions to local officials went to Republicans, Pohl, Brown & Associates Inc. gave $20,000 to the Democratic National Committee in 1996, when Pohl also contributed $500 to U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin.
Campaign contributions by large landowners are not unusual, said Pete Peters, a political consultant who has worked for most of Williamson County's elected officials.
"You expect business people to be involved in political campaigns. That's tradition; that's the way it's been,'' Peters said. "They support the chamber, and they support political campaigns, and theoretically, that makes the world turn.''
Perhaps Pohl's most visible support of a political campaign ultimately came back to haunt him.
In 1995, Austin appeared on the verge of bringing a Triple-A baseball team to a stadium that would be built with taxpayer help. If Austin had succeeded, it would have ended Pohl's dream of attracting a minor-league team to land owned by Carolville Ltd., a partnership he had formed that has more than 1,000 acres in Williamson County.
Pohl poured money into a group buying ads opposing the stadium, and Austin voters defeated the measure. But Pohl had infuriated many Austin baseball supporters, including state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin. "I love baseball, and my constituents love baseball,''
Barrientos said. "I know it's a free country, but I was left kind of disgusted about the situation.''
He would exact revenge in 1997.
Pohl and the Legislature
When his local influence has failed him, Pohl has not hesitated to seek a higher authority.
One of the laws the Legislature passed in 1995 prohibits Austin from considering the volume of new traffic that development would cause when making decisions on land within 1,500 feet of Southwest Williamson County Road District No. 1, which surrounds the RM 620-U.S. 183 intersection.
Austin officials still grouse about the law, and Pohl referred to it in 1997 as ``that law that everybody hates me for.''
Barrientos and Krusee, who sponsored the prohibition, said they carried the bill because Austin had told the developers of Lakeline Mall in the early 1990s that they could not develop their land until the Texas Department of Transportation widened U.S. 183 into a six-lane highway.
"I didn't think it was completely fair,'' Barrientos said. "All I look for in these decisions is
The second law Pohl pushed for, this time in cooperation with Cedar Park, took 6,000 acres from Austin's control and gave them to Cedar Park. Pohl's partnerships owned at least 1,500 of the 6,000 acres.
The growing suburb and Pohl, Brown had reason to work together at the time, although their relationship has since soured. Austin had annexed a narrow strip of land up U.S. 183 in 1977, thus extending its boundaries into Williamson County. Later, Austin annexed the land at the end of the strip that would become Lakeline Mall. Lakeline is the only regional mall within 10 miles of Cedar Park, yet all the sales tax dollars go to Austin.
Austin's extraterritorial jurisdiction wrapped around the east side of Cedar Park along Parmer Lane and included 1,000 acres owned by Carolville Ltd. But Austin officials said at the time they wouldn't extend water and sewer service to the area for decades, if ever.
"Cedar Park said they would service that area so it would be developed for commercial and industrial uses to diversify the tax base,'' Krusee said.
He denied that his efforts had anything to do with contributions to him by Pohl's partnerships.
After the bill transferring the extraterritorial jurisdiction passed, Cedar Park annexed Pohl's land and other tracts in the area and started extending water and sewer lines there, increasing the value of Pohl's land. It remains undeveloped.
Austin and Cedar Park eventually agreed to the 6,000-acre transfer, though the law was ruled
unconstitutional because it singled out Austin for treatment different from other Texas cities and interfered with the city's contractual obligations. In a 1997 interview, Pohl acknowledged his political successes but said, ``We do not have these visions that we're powerful people, because we're not.''
A unique MUD
In December 1996, with the Legislature soon to convene, Cedar Park City Manager Don Birkner met City Attorney Leonard Smith for coffee near Lakeline Mall.
They had just met with Pohl, Brown officials, city staff and Krusee to discuss the company's proposal for a municipal utility district (MUD) on about 1,600 acres at Parmer Lane and FM 1431.
Brown said at the time that the district would allow developers to build roads and other improvements at a faster pace and with higher standards than a city could accomplish.
Birkner lectured his attorney on what to expect from Pohl, Brown.
"They start the game with excitement and enthusiasm and `This is the greatest thing, and then everything's going to be dandy, if we can only get this done,' '' Birkner recalled recently. "And then you and I are going to end up being the son of a bitches ok'd by kw in this when they can't do what they wanted to do for one reason or another.''
The municipal utility district could help pay for Pohl's hoped-for baseball stadium through fees and taxes collected within the district and would provide water and sewer service to 1,400 acres surrounding the stadium site owned by Pohl, Brown partnerships Aline Ltd. and Carolville Ltd.
Cedar Park leaders opposed the idea and found it puzzling. Why not use Cedar Park utility services, which would be there within months? Why not bring a stadium proposal before the voters? Why create a unique MUD that could, by a vote of its own residents, divide itself into multiple other districts?
City officials were concerned that the MUD, which would be within the city but could levy its own taxes, would be beyond their control.
"Baseball was a smokescreen, in my opinion,'' Birkner said in a recent interview. He suspects Pohl and Brown wanted to be free of any interference from Cedar Park in developing their land.
Pohl, Brown officials sent a half-dozen drafts of the MUD bill to Birkner and Smith, apparently seeking a compromise, but it became clear that Pohl, Brown wanted a special district that the city could not tolerate, Smith said. The district -- which Birkner took to calling a "pregnant MUD'' -- could break itself into many other districts, adding taxes on top of city taxes, possibly creating an area so burdened by taxes it would be unmarketable.
"We had been through a lot to get that property . . . to take care of the future of the city,'' Birkner said. "And then to be willing to write it all off to an external system was not something that the council was interested in.''
The City Council rejected the idea in a 7-0 vote in May 1997. Within a few days, Pohl and Brown called council members, blaming Smith, who had counseled them against the plan, for the failure to reach agreement.
"They were OK with me so long as I agreed with them,'' Smith said. "But when I disagreed, or asked hard questions, I became an obstacle that needed to be eliminated.''
Within weeks, Pohl lobbyist Chuck Rice Jr. persuaded an aide for state Sen. Ken Armbrister, D-Victoria, to add a scaled-down version of the proposal as an amendment to a statewide stadium-financing bill.
Because Cedar Park opposed it, Krusee wouldn't support the amendment.
There were two other problems.
First, the amendment would have allowed county commissioners to create the district without a referendum. Gov. George W. Bush had said publicly that any stadium bill should require a vote of the taxpayers.
Second, it ran into Barrientos, who described Pohl to another senator as "the guy who stole Austin's baseball team.''
Barrientos, whose support was critical because of the senatorial custom of deferring to local legislators on local matters, said in a recent interview that it was more than just Pohl's campaign against Austin baseball that led him to reject the amendment.
"The most blatant thing was that you're going to have public funding of something without voter approval,'' Barrientos said. "That's what did it.''
A few weeks after the amendment was killed, Pohl was apologetic for the way his company had pushed the measure.
"It was extremely disappointing,'' Pohl said, "but we learned a lot of lessons, and we shouldn't have done it the way we did.''
Late on bond payments
This year, Williamson County commissioners asked Krusee to file a bill restricting Austin's ability to change environmental regulations in the Lakeline Mall area. The bill is intended primarily to promote dense development within Southwest Williamson County Road
District No. 1, a special taxing district surrounding Lakeline Mall that financed construction of $24 million in roads in the 1980s. Pohl's partnerships are the largest landholder in the district, which includes more than 1,100 acres in Austin and about 200 in Cedar Park. Most of the land is undeveloped.
It's expensive to develop in the district because of its high debt -- about $17 million -- which each landowner has to help pay off. For example, one of Pohl's partnerships owes about $6,600 a year to the district for a 1-acre lot at RM 620 and U.S. 183.
Dense development -- offices, apartments and retail centers -- would add to the tax base and make it easier to pay off the debt. State and local governments have spent hundreds of millions of dollars building roads and utilities in the Lakeline Mall area, Krusee said, and Williamson County residents want to bring employers and commerce there, expanding the tax base.
"Austin has annexed into another county, and it's important that the City of Austin respect the needs of that county,'' he said.
The bill also could provide an incentive for the Austin City Council to approve a special development agreement next month on 500 acres that are almost all within the district. PacTen Partners, a California developer, is trying to buy the land from some of
For Williamson County commissioners, who are obligated
to make sure the road district's bondholders are paid,
it's important for Pohl, Brown to sell its land. Pohl,
Brown's partnerships have been six months late in
making annual bond payments three years in a row, said
Charlie Crossfield, an attorney who handles road
``The main thing we've dealt with them on is the road
districts, and we've been as evenhanded with them as
anyone else,'' Boatright said. ``If they're
delinquent, then we're going to come in and we're
going to foreclose on the property to make sure the .
. . payments are made.''
Williamson County commissioners did foreclose in
December on 26 acres owned by Pohl, Brown partnership
Brooke Ltd., which had been delinquent in paying its
annual bond payments and Leander school district
The pattern of late payments by Pohl, Brown
partnerships has hurt the district's credit rating,
making it unable to refinance the bonds at a lower
interest rate, Crossfield said.
``We would prefer anyone to hold the property other
than Pohl, Brown,'' Crossfield said. Noting PacTen's
history of construction in Los Angeles, he said:
``(The PacTen) people have a background. . . . They
plan on doing something with the property, and we feel
we have a better chance of getting our annual
assessments paid by PacTen than Pohl, Brown.''
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