Sunday, January 21, 2007

The Rewards of Public Service

Williamson County commissioner left office this month, but his influence will remain for years.

Decisions during Limmer's tenure helped boost the value of Williamson land he partly owns

January 21, 2007

By Andrea Lorenz
Austin American Statesman
Copyright 2007

TAYLOR — Even with new H-E-Bs and subdivisions with names like Emory Farms, eastern Williamson County still holds strong to the county's rural roots. With miles of new roads and city governments' push for commercial and residential development, it's only a matter of time before the east looks more like the suburbs.

For the past eight years, the area's county commissioner not only sped up that growth through his governing power but also expanded his own holdings as a private developer.

Frankie Limmer decided not to run again for county commissioner because of criticism about his business dealings while in office. Fighting in the Vietnam War would have been easier, he said.

Frankie Limmer's dual roles — and large landholdings that inched ever closer to development during his term in office — created a debate that at times was just a whisper among farmers and at other times reached a decibel level that attracted heavy media attention.

"I've never had a selfish motive whatsoever," Limmer said late last month, while driving on county roads surrounding his land.

Limmer said the criticism was so taxing that he decided not to seek a third term, nor will he ever serve in public office again.

"This was a Tet Offensive for eight years," he said, comparing his stint in office to battling the Viet Cong.

When his term began in 1999, Limmer had an interest in about 1,200 acres of farmland in his precinct, either directly or through his wife and her family, according to financial disclosure reports or appraisal district records. The land was worth about $2.1 million.

Today, he owns or has an interest in about 1,400 acres, some of it wrapped up in limited partnerships created in the past few years. His lands and those partly owned by his wife are now worth $6.7 million and will increase in value as the area develops.

Market values in Williamson County have increased overall, and the new Texas 130 toll road just west of Hutto has made eastern Williamson County even more accessible to Austin, making land in the area more lucrative to sell than to farm.

Limmer's lands are now or soon will be laced with new roads; some tracts are designated as water districts.

Some commissioners find holding office so time-consuming they have to give up private endeavors. But Limmer kept busy starting new companies. When he took office in 1999, he had an interest in fewer than a half-dozen companies, including a construction firm and half of the Frankie and Judy Limmer Family Limited Partnership, corporate owner of some of his land.

By 2006, either individually or through his companies, Limmer had an interest in more than a dozen companies, including several that developed or have plans to develop land in his precinct.

The construction company was dissolved last year, Limmer said, because he had no time to run it.

Admirers praise Limmer for bringing much-needed roads and attention to the area, part of a county that's grown by about 100,000 people since he was elected.

Yet over the years, others have described a different picture, saying Limmer guided the infrastructure to benefit his developments and influenced officials of Hutto to contract for future water usage that exceeds what Hutto's citizens are expected to need. Hutto is near the water districts on Limmer's land.

Experts say there's no crime in a commissioner benefiting from public infrastructure spending, because all citizens benefit.

Limmer contends that his efforts have been for the good of the county, and his private ventures were kept separate from his public service.

Paving way for roads

Two parcels in particular caused the most commotion for Limmer; they are also now prime for development.

One is northwest of Taylor, more than 50 acres he bought in 2000 though a partnership with his wife and business partner Todd Routh.

Today the land is a grazing area for wild hogs, with a bass-filled pond where Limmer fishes with his grandsons, and a hill with a view of Georgetown.

Limmer said he envisions the land possibly 10 years from now with clusters of high-end homes, maybe even his own. Austin developer Routh wants to put a golf course on it within five years.

Another parcel is about 550 acres southeast of Hutto, parts of which are owned by Limmer, his wife and her family, including nearly 70 acres he bought in 2003 with Routh through Walnut Corner LLC, a company formed the same year.

In 2004, Limmer paid an engineer to design a concept plan for a subdivision on that property with more than 1,800 homes. He said the plan was drawn to protect the asset after a threat of the possibility of a regional airport being built in the area. Right now, the land is used for farming.

Both properties have frontage on a county road, an essential element in developing land, according to Charles Heimsath, an Austin real estate development consultant. The parcels also are near or in the path of new roads for which Limmer voted.

In August 2000, Limmer voted to extend Chandler Road into eastern Williamson County to connect Taylor and Interstate 35. The road, which still isn't completed, will pass within about a mile of the 50 acres he owns near Taylor, making the area more accessible to commuters who take I-35. Limmer had finalized that land purchase in October 2000, less than two months after the late-August vote to build the road.

Until 2002, Limmer's financial disclosure forms filed with the county listed some of his properties simply as "land," without specifying acreage or location.

That vagueness combined with the proximity of some of his landholdings and developments to projects in his precinct created conflict. A few neighbors didn't want Chandler Road extended and blamed the project on Limmer's influence. Limmer said recently that engineering firms — not he — determined the best site for Chandler Road.

A more recent and ongoing road project concerns the 550 acres near Hutto. County engineers are working on a proposed realignment of FM 1660 that Hutto requested four years ago to help ease traffic congestion. FM 1660 cuts through downtown Hutto, and trucks from the nearby county landfill regularly drive through the heart of the city.

Commissioners, including Limmer, approved an engineering study in 2003 to relocate FM 1660. At the time, the plan was to realign FM 1660 on potential routes west of, but not touching, Limmer's family property.

But those routes were rejected in 2005 when engineers found problems, including a gas pipeline that would cost more than $1 million to cross, and historic sites that limit how wide the road could grow.

Engineers went back to the drawing board, with input from Limmer on the specifics of the area, such as pipelines, a common procedure for commissioners. The proposed routes now all cut through Limmer's property.

The county's contractor designed the potential routes based on cost, impact to the environment and utilities, and input from county engineering consultants and the state, according to a letter written by the project manager, Mahmoud Salehi of Cobb, Fendley & Associates Inc.

Limmer and engineers say the more recently proposed routes are the only ones possible. He said he worked on the routes with the engineers to find a suitable location and that the project has been one of the most difficult because of the obstacles in the area.

The county is paying for the $17 million project, but county spokeswoman Connie Watson said the state will pay back most of that in a 10-year period.

Again, some of Limmer's neighbors don't want a new road to cut through their land because they are not interested in developing it. "Frankie has a different agenda," friend and neighbor Jock Norman said. "I just want to leave it to my kids, and he's a developer."

Limmer said other county roads are on the land: FM 3349 and the current FM 1660, although they do not cut through the planned development to the extent that the new roads would. In both cases, the county attorney's office deemed Limmer's actions legal.

For a project to be a conflict of interest, the state says, the economic effect on the official's property or business must be "distinguishable" from its effect on the public. Assistant County Attorney Dale Rye said a new road benefits everyone in the area because land appraisals will increase, so Limmer's involvement in building the roads was not a conflict.

Limmer's name was cleared by the attorney's office after the Chandler Road fight, but it was too late to escape controversy. The allegations of double-dealings — by precinct residents, the media and others — would follow him as he created more companies and developments.

In the water business

During droughts, wells dry up in eastern Williamson County, and land can't be developed without a steady water supply. Limmer saw the area was suffering a water shortage, so he got into the water business in 2002.

His private interest in the water business was approved by the county attorney after Limmer had tried to "persuade the county or some other public entity to coordinate" an effort to bring water to the area from the huge Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer bordering southeast Williamson County, according to a letter from Rye dated in 2002. It said Limmer "only organized the private venture when it became clear that the county had no institutional interest in this project."

In 2004, Limmer's company, Trinity Groundwater, became a partner in the Heart of Texas Water Suppliers, an entity he helped create through contacts he had made in a hydrologist's office. Days later, Hutto signed a contract to buy water from Heart of Texas for 50 years.

The contract ensured Hutto enough water to grow, but it was and is more water than Hutto needs, and the price is too high, according to a report by the city's finance director at the time.

The city uses about 600,000 gallons per day, which is less than the city must buy from two other water providers. In addition, the city now must buy 1 million gallons per day from Heart of Texas. By 2010, Hutto must buy 3 million gallons of water per day from Heart of Texas.

The city is renegotiating the deal.

Limmer said he consulted the county attorney at the time, Gene Taylor, and other officials before completing the water deal with Hutto. "They all said nothing was wrong," he said.

He said he formed the Heart of Texas partnership partly to ensure water for future developments, including his two undeveloped properties near Taylor and Hutto, which could potentially be served by the Heart of Texas water pipelines. Heart of Texas owns 10 acres adjacent to the property Limmer's wife and family own southeast of Hutto.

The properties have something else in common: Their own utility districts approved by the commissioners court.

The districts are classified as water control and improvement districts, which the state defines as entities that can collect taxes, obtain easements and condemn property.

They also can supply and store water, and operate wastewater systems. Each district is governed by an elected board and is "actually a funding mechanism that allows (a developer) to build the infrastructure," said Heimsath, the real estate development consultant.

The county commissioners, with Limmer abstaining, voted in 2003 and 2006 to create the districts, which included land mostly owned by Limmer or his wife and her family. Limmer, his wife and family members had signed the petition to create the districts.

Neither district has pipes built to attach to Heart of Texas water pipes because future development is uncertain, Limmer said. "It's so far down the road I haven't even thought about it."

State law about conflicts of interest is vague, said Rye, the assistant county attorney.

"At what point does it pass over from being a personal benefit to being a benefit to the community that you benefit from by being a citizen of the community?

"The fact that you might have more influence with the Hutto City Council because you're a county commissioner — there's nothing we can do about that," Rye said.

Limmer's involvement with Heart of Texas didn't actually influence the council, said Mike Fowler, who was Hutto mayor in 2004 and voted to begin negotiations with Limmer's company.

"It was real clear that he wasn't making his presence known on the water issue when I was mayor," Fowler said. "He was sending his partners to do proposals."

Fowler said the council was focused on finding the best water deal it could to ensure Hutto had water for growth.

Hutto might be struggling with the water costs now, but "10 years from now, Frankie will be a visionary for Hutto," said area political adviser Charles Carter, who has worked on various commissioners' campaigns, including Limmer's.

Land use dispute

Hutto's population has grown from 1,200 to 13,000 since Limmer was elected. Officials predict more people are coming. With that in mind, the city collaborated with the Lower Colorado River Authority on plans to build a wastewater plant southeast of the city.

The LCRA consulted with Limmer as an elected official in the area, a common practice before building plants, said Suzanne Zarling, LCRA water manager, in an e-mail to the American-Statesman.

Then, an April 2006 LCRA report on potential sites stirred up complaints about the project and Limmer's role in it.

The report based economic feasibility of the sites in part on how the plant could best serve the land Limmer owns southeast of Hutto that has a water district. Zarling said the water district had asked about the possibility of hooking in to the plant. The report included a map of Limmer's land showing its proximity to the potential sites.

One site that became a top contender for the plant belongs to a family with land neighboring Limmer's family land.

Members of the Walther family, who have their own plans to develop their land one day, were upset that it might be chosen as a site for a treatment plant.

Even worse, they said, the selection process seemed to be influenced by the potential development of a public official's land.

In the next few months, members of the Walther family attended every Hutto City Council meeting, hired a public relations representative and spent thousands of dollars on research.

Limmer was silent on the issue in public.

Zarling said recently that the April report incorrectly portrayed the importance of the Walther site and of Limmer's water district.

"When asked, Limmer offered no specific opinions" regarding the Walther site, Zarling said.

In the end, the LCRA and City Council chose a site other than the Walther land, based on a more recent LCRA report that cast the Walther property in a less favorable light and did not focus on Limmer's land.

Limmer said it's a moot point. The two properties with water districts are so far from being developed that what he did in office couldn't have affected them. "That's not developing," he said of the subdivision plan for one of them. "That's some lines on a piece of paper."

A question of ethics

In a county such as Williamson, where rural land is rapidly being developed, and where residents tend to own large tracts, it's not unusual for a commissioner to find himself in Limmer's position, said Texas Association of Counties spokeswoman Elna Christopher.

The public simply wants openness from elected officials, she said. The problem comes when citizens think the officials aren't being forthright.

County Attorney Jana Duty said she has heard complaints about Limmer in the past couple years but none gave her a reason to launch a formal investigation.

Limmer's private projects never conflicted with his job as commissioner, said former County Judge John Doerfler. But Limmer did get annoyed about how slowly government worked, he said.

"It was hard (for Limmer) to get used to the rules and laws of working in government," Doerfler said. "That often happens with business people coming to office."

But Gary Halter, a government professor at Texas A&M University and the former mayor of College Station, said having a commissioner developing land in his precinct looks like a conflict of interest on some level.

"It might not be illegal, but it might very well be unethical," Halter said.

If a government official is going to face too many conflicts of interest, as would a developer in a growing county, there's an easy solution, Halter said. "The alternative is, you don't have to be in county government."

That's the decision Limmer has made.

Now that he's out of office, Limmer said, he'll focus on real estate and water. He said his term in office cost him friendships, in addition to the concern about what his grandsons would hear about him while they were at school in Hutto.

Limmer said he didn't get into office to be "on the take."

He said he did it to serve.

During the Vietnam War, Limmer's brothers were drafted, and he said he regretted that in the draft lottery his birth date was picked too late for him to go.

Serving as commissioner "was part of me giving back to society," he said. " 'Nam would have been easier."; 246-0008

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