Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Governor Perry's Texas liquidation sale continues..

Perry pushed for land auction

Aug. 29, 2006

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2006

AUSTIN — Gov. Rick Perry’s office worked aggressively behind the scenes to facilitate the auction of 400 acres of state parkland in Tarrant County to the highest bidder — despite growing outcry over the loss of Texas parks — according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.

While publicly distancing itself from the dealings, the governor’s office appears to have privately pushed for an auction that would guarantee that only one-fourth of the property remained green space, according to e-mails and documents obtained through the state’s open-records law.
The governor’s proposal would also set aside several gas well drilling sites on the 400 acres, according to the documents. The property is at Eagle Mountain Lake, just northwest of Fort Worth, and has become the subject of intense interest by several residential developers.

“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, Governor 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 that the governor wants the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the General Land Office to come up with a plan for the property that best suits the state’s needs. She denied that the governor’s office pushed any plan or made any recommendations for the site.

“We’re monitoring the situation,” spokeswoman Kathy Walt said.

Park Problems

Perry and Texas lawmakers have come under fire for shortchanging the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which in recent years has reduced park operations, ordered staff layoffs, and contended with inoperable or deteriorating equipment. Under Perry’s tenure, state spending on parks has gone down while state spending overall has gone up.

Perry has also signed off on budgets that redirected tens of millions of dollars away from the parks department to other state agencies. At the same time, the land at Eagle Mountain Lake has remained undeveloped, the result of pervasive budget shortfalls, agency officials say.

The parks department bought the 400 acres at Eagle Mountain Lake in 1980. But in late December, after the state land office declared it an unused state 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 go forward with any deal was up to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said representatives for both the governor’s and Patterson’s offices. “He [Patterson] makes those decisions,” Walt said. She made similar assertions in a Aug. 22 article in the Star-Telegram.

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 the same e-mail, Patterson wrote, “I hope to have the governor’s decision by summer’s end, and we could paper the deal very quickly after that.”

In another e-mail, a staffer in Patterson’s office writes: “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 describes 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 Governor Office, however it is clear that they have been talking with [the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department],” Croft wrote.

The “plans” he described in that e-mail 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. He concluded with a plea for assistance. “Help, I need some direction!”

On June 12, another land office staffer reports “almost daily calls” from the governor’s office.

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

“It was not an idea being pushed by the governor’s office. I don’t know where it originated. I don’t know if the proposal had been made by an outside party,” Walt said.

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. “We received many phone calls from people who have given us their opinion,” he said.

A spokesman for Patterson — who was out of the country Tuesday — said the land office operates independently from the governor’s office.

Land unused

The land office spokesman also noted that selling the Eagle Mountain Lake acreage made sense because it had remained unused for more than 25 years and that the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department could use the proceeds to buy more parkland elsewhere.

But Metzger, of Environment Texas, calls that argument disingenuous. He said there would have been plenty of money to develop the land if lawmakers had not diverted tax dollars originally dedicated to Texas parks.

“We’ve seen the tremendous public support for parks over the last few months. Texans want more, not less, parkland,” Metzger said. “The money is available to protect existing parks and create new ones. We don’t need to make this kind of shady deal.”

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

At one point, land office staffers appeared to have become flummoxed by an apparently unexpected $250,000 earnest money check sent to the agency by Fort Worth’s Mira Vista Development Corp.

In a May 24 letter, Mira Vista Vice President Thomas Nezworski urged land office staffers to “proceed with an actual sale in a timely manner in 2006 so as to preserve the maximum value of this asset.”

The company also sent a $10 million purchase contract, according to the e-mail. The check was returned to the developer.

Nezworski could not be reached for comment.

Lobbyist Jay Stewart also said he contacted the parks department, the land office and state lawmakers about the Eagle Mountain Lake site on behalf of Southlake developer Terry Wilkerson. Stewart works for the lobby firm of former U.S. Rep. Kent Hance, who is also registered as a lobbyist for Wilkerson’s development firm.

“We hope there is an open process and that this property is put up for the good of parks and wildlife and the state and it’s put up for honest bid,” Stewart said.

Walt, the Perry spokeswoman, said she did not know whether the governor’s office had been contacted by lobbyists or developers interested in the property.

Further complicating matters is a July 13 letter from parks commission Director Joseph Fitzsimons in which he asks Patterson to delay any transaction for 120 days.

Fitzsimons, a Perry appointee, said he wants to use the time to pursue a deal that could lead to the preservation of the property as a park.

However, the 120-day 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.

“One hundred and twenty days is a normal study period, but it may take less time than that,” Walt said.

R.A. Dyer, 512-476-4294

© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: www.dfw.com/mld/dfw/