Tuesday, November 06, 2007

“It’s all smoke and mirrors. They have been planning to do this all along. They didn’t listen to anybody when they had their public meetings."

State of SH 130 concerns area landowners

November 6, 2007

By Michael Cary
The Gazette-Enterprise (Seguin)
Copyright 2007

STAPLES — Dennis Elam knew he wasn’t cut out to be a city dweller during the one month he lived in San Marcos with his new wife, Brenda, after they were married in 1963.

“I’ve got to have my horse. They won’t let me keep him in an apartment,” Elam said.

The problem for Elam and his family is that the State Highway 130 construction contractor and the property acquisition firm has tapped the 57 acres they live and work cattle on and it is smack in the middle of the path of the highway where it will connect with F.M. 621.

The new toll highway that will connect Georgetown to Seguin and possibly beyond will affect some property owners, businesses and residents in the Fentress, Lockhart, Luling, Seguin and Staples areas as the fifth and sixth segments of SH 130 are built to ultimately connect to IH-10.

Citing a lack of adequate funding for the Texas Department of Highways to build any more roads to accommodate a wave of growth, Gov. Rick Perry inked a deal with Zachry American Infrastructure and Cintra of Spain to design, construct and operate the new toll road.

The road is expected to offer a low-traffic connection from the Seguin area to the north Central Texas region, providing relief from traffic on a congested IH-35.

The two companies established the SH 130 Concession Co. to design, build and operate the toll road in Travis, Caldwell and Guadalupe counties.

TxDOT will oversee all right-of-way acquisitions and relocation procedures, and the state will be the record titleholder to all right-of-way acquired for segments 5 and 6 of SH 130.

But Elam said he feels like the state is dealing him a low blow by taking the property that both sets of his grandparents lived on after his father and mother, Leah and George Elam, purchased the 210-acre farm in 1950 and built a house near F.M. 621.

Today, his sisters Joy Chamness of Lockhart, Ann Willard of Alabama, and Patricia Priest of New Mexico, own nearly equal parts of the remainder of the land that stretches in a rectangle from F.M. 621 to Little Cottonwood Creek, which runs parallel to Bylerpool Road.

Elam said Chamness would also lose most of her land; Willard would lose about 40 percent of hers, and Priest would lose some land, but what she retains “would be landlocked and useless because the access road to the highway crosses my property.

“I lose everything, my houses, barns, corrals, and a bunch of oak trees,” Elam said.

Elam, who was born on and grew up on his family’s property, has refused to sign access papers for representatives of O.R. Colan Associates, the property acquisition firm, to enter his property to take surveys and make an assessment of his property value.

He has received two relocation packets, and is critical that the firm believes that his homestead is located in Caldwell County instead of Guadalupe County.

He also points to a field that lies between his house and his son’s house.

It’s a natural drainage on the property, and he contends that engineers who designed the road on a computer have no idea what they will encounter when they enter the region.

“They will have to take care of the water. They’re using maps and flat screen computers to design the road. They haven’t taken this land into consideration. They’re going to find a lot of problems,” Elam said.

Elam blames Gov. Perry and the Texas Legislature for what he believes is aiding and abetting influential landowners in the area in a get-rich scheme. He also said the highway is a resuscitated version of the earlier MoKan bypass (Mexico to Kansas) plan that surfaced in the 1980s, and that SH 130 is a renamed rendition of the very unpopular Trans-Texas Corridor.

“It’s all smoke and mirrors. They have been planning to do this all along. They didn’t listen to anybody when they had their public meetings. It was a dog and pony show,” Elam said.

“I personally think it’s a money deal that runs pretty deep in political pockets. If it wasn’t, why is the state selling out to a consortium, why not let TxDOT do it?” he said.

Elam pointed out that Senator Jeff Wentworth and State Representative Edmund Kuempel sponsored bills to create the York Valley Ranch Municipal Utility District, which would have special taxing powers and the ability to control a water supply and build sewer and drainage infrastructure, this past legislative session. Gov. Perry signed the bill in the spring.

According to an article published in the Seguin Gazette-Enterprise in February, York Valley Ranch would be dissected in the middle by SH 130, giving a head start to the developer’s plans for the property.

The M.U.D. was put together at the behest of Austin developer Henry Stewart, who proposed a 2,077-acre mixed residential and commercial development in the center of an area surrounded by F.M. 20 to the south, F.M. 3353 to the west, F.M. 1339 to the north and F.M. 621, to the east.

He also said that much fewer people would be affected if the designers would just move the highway a half-mile to the south or a half mile to the north.

He said he was concerned about his own liability if the surveying company comes onto his property and causes damage that results in injury to another party.

He also said the acquisition firm’s estimate of fair market value doesn’t take into account what the property would be worth 10 years from now.

He also had pointed out the grove of live oak trees that lie in the path of the roadway, and questioned whether the firm would put a price on the value of the trees.

Jessica Schenk of Tate Austin, a public relations agent for the SH 130 construction project, replied that Elam would be indemnified for the negligence of others if he were to sign the Limited Right of Entry form so surveyors could enter his property.

She also said she and Dennis Sedlachek, vice president of right-of-way for the SH 130 Concession Co., have had several conversations with Elam.

“They have chosen a route that they felt would have the least impact on the environment and property owners if possible,” Schenk said.

Schenk also said that if Elam continues to refuse to sign a right of entry form to allow surveyors onto his property, the matter would be referred to the state attorney general’s office to initiate eminent domain proceedings.

“We would like to communicate with him and get the process started off on the right foot. We want to enter his property, do the surveys and do the due diligence and appraisal,” Schenk said.

Elam had previously made the comparison of SH 130 as an equivalent of selling the state back to Spain after Mexico fought and won its independence from it in the 19th Century.

“No foreign companies are going to own this project or the land. It’s a concession agreement, like selling hot dogs at a baseball stadium. The concession will design, build and operate the highway for a period of years, then they will go home,” Schenk said.

“He mentioned property values increasing. We can’t speculate on what’s going to happen in 10 years. Everything will rise in value because of this roadway,” Schenk said.

Everything, that is, except the Elam family’s farm, which will disappear under the SH 130’s bulldozers.

“I told my wife that if I die before they build the road, bury me in the field where the road is going. We never planned to leave this area, this is home,” Elam said.

“If they went away it wouldn’t bother me at all. This was a good place to grow up, and a good place to raise kids,” he said.

© 2007 The Seguin Gazette-Enterprise: www.seguingazette.com

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