Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Gov. Perry's Texas liquidation sale moves to parklands

Documents show Perry pushed for park land sale

Aug. 30, 2006

Associated Press
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN - Despite a growing outcry over the loss of Texas parks, Gov. Rick Perry's office appears to have worked aggressively to facilitate the auction of 400 acres of state park land, according to documents obtained by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

The property is at Eagle Mountain Lake near Fort Worth and has become the subject of intense interest by several residential developers.

The governor's proposal would set aside several gas well drilling sites on the land, and the auction would guarantee that only a fourth of it remain green space, according to e-mails and documents obtained through the state's open-records law.

"This is a terrible deal for Texas parks," said Luke Metzger, an advocate with the Austin-based Environment Texas. "Clearly, the governor's office is talking out of both sides of the mouth. On the one hand, Gov. Perry says he wants to create a world-class parks system, but then behind closed doors he's pushing to develop and drill this natural treasure."

A spokeswoman for Perry has said he wants the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the General Land Office to develop a plan for the property that best suits the state's needs. Kathy Walt denied that the governor's office pushed any plan or made recommendations for the site.

Perry and Texas lawmakers have come under fire for shortchanging the parks department, which in recent years has reduced park operations, ordered staff layoffs, and contended with inoperable or deteriorating equipment.

The department bought the 400 acres at Eagle Mountain Lake in 1980. But in December, after the state land office declared it an unused resource, Perry's office authorized its sale. As a condition, Perry's office stipulated that the parks department retain proceeds from the sale and the mineral rights.

Beyond that, whether to proceed with any deal was up to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said representatives for the governor's and Patterson's offices.

But in a June 9 e-mail to a political supporter, Patterson said "the final decision on the property will be made by the governor."

In another e-mail, a staffer in Patterson's office wrote: "Expect a call from ... an attorney in the governor's office, who is trying to put together the terms and conditions under which this property could be offered at a bid sale."

In a June 5 e-mail, land office asset manager Hal Croft described a phone call he received from an attorney in the governor's office.

"She called to discuss some plans 'they' have for the disposition of Eagle Mt. Lake. They being the Gov. Office, however it is clear that they have been talking with (the parks department)," Croft wrote.

The "plans" would set aside 100 acres for a conservation easement and reserve several sites for natural gas drilling. At least one well already operates on the park property.

"She (the attorney from the governor's office) said they would like a sealed bid sale on the tract," Croft wrote. "Help, I need some direction!"

On June 12, another land office staffer reported "almost daily calls" from the governor's office.

Walt said the governor's office wanted to clarify how a bid sale on the property would proceed. She said the transaction described in e-mails did not reflect official proposals from Perry or his staffers, but rather an attempt to monitor ongoing proceedings.

"It was not an idea being pushed by the governor's office," Walt said, adding she did not know where it originated.

Croft also discouraged reading too much into the e-mails. He likened the involvement of the governor's office to that of any other interested party.

A spokesman for Patterson said the land office operates independently from the governor's office. The spokesman also noted that selling the land made sense because it had remained unused for more than 25 years and that the parks department could use the proceeds elsewhere.

But Metzger said there would have been plenty of money to develop the land if lawmakers had not diverted tax dollars originally dedicated to Texas parks.

The correspondence also illustrates aggressive behind-the-scenes interest from several developers.

Walt said she did not know whether the governor's office had been contacted by lobbyists or developers.

Further complicating matters is a July 13 letter from parks commission Director Joseph Fitzsimons asking Patterson to delay any transaction for 120 days to pursue a deal that could lead to preserving the property as a park.

The moratorium, which Patterson approved, will delay any deal until the week after the Nov. 7 gubernatorial election. Both Fitzsimons and Perry's office said the timing is coincidental.

© 2006 The Associated Press: