Saturday, February 09, 2008

"The government taking our private properties in order to then lease them out to make a profit for the state is beyond unjust; it is an outrage."

East Texans fear I-69/TTC will disrupt their rural lives

February 09, 2008

Nachodoches Daily Sentinel
Copyright 2008

When Larry Shelton carried his wife, on their wedding night, through the door of the dream house he built for them in the Libby Community in east Nacogdoches County, he believed they would live out their lives in their new home, enjoying the simple pleasures of life most couples find themselves too busy or too removed from nature to appreciate.

He looked forward to holding her hand while walking through the woods, sipping their morning coffee together in the breakfast nook while looking out over the flowers in the garden, and working on his wood carving.

Little did he know, when the two of them walked through that threshold three years ago, there was a possibility that a super highway would freeze all of his hopes and dreams, instead filling both his and his wife's days with constant letter-writing, educating the locals about the highway's consequences and attending public hearings to protest the highway, which could destroy everything he worked so hard to build.

The I-69 Trans-Texas Corridor, if built, would include toll roads, high-speed freight and commuter rail, water lines, oil and gas pipelines, electric transmission lines and telecommunications infrastructure all in the same corridors. The corridor is one possible solution to rising traffic congestion problems, according to the Texas Department of Transportation. An exact location for the corridor has not yet been decided, but the possibility of it going through rural areas in Nacogdoches and Shelby counties has landowners upset and angry that the government could come in and take their land away to make room for a massive highway.

TxDOT has offered three alternatives, all of which are currently being considered as TxDOT officials hold public hearings to listen to the concerns and suggestions of those the highway would affect. The first alternative is taking no action at all and not building anything. The second would be an upgrade of current highways, including U.S. Hwy. 59 and others. This second option would still affect some locals, but not as many as the third alternative, which would be to develop a Trans-Texas Corridor and build a new route through the state. Though most landowners oppose the second option as well, it's the third option that has most rural landowners upset, scared and angry.

The proposed path of the corridor could end up cutting right through Shelton's property, which would mean the loss of the home he spent six years of his life building, including working holidays, weekends and late into the night,

"There's 17 years of blood, sweat and tears in this place," Shelton said, adding that no amount of money the government could offer would replace how much labor and love have gone into his property.

He and his wife, Merry Anne Bright, had planned on doing more with the place, including growing a beautiful garden. But for now, the two have no idea what the future holds and no assurances that any work they put into their home will matter years down the road.

"Our lives are put on hold," Shelton said. "It's difficult to go forward because it could be a waste of time and effort."

Shelton doesn't just worry about his own land, though. The corridor would also take away land from his neighbors, a farmer who had plans of building a large poultry house for an expansion of his business, and a 75-year-old woman whose family lived in their home for generations. Part of the nearby Libby community, which is currently in danger, includes what used to be a one-room schoolhouse and a cemetery with more than 75 graves that has existed since 1898.

"This is the heart of our community," Shelton said. "It would physically divide the community, and that would mean the death of the community."

So instead of living a relaxing, worry-free life as he had planned, Shelton and Bright are spending their time fighting the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor that threatens to destroy their way of life. He spends much of his time at meetings and writing letters speaking out against the super highway while Bright attempts to educate neighbors on the highway and what they can do to stop it. Recently, she distributed more than 3,000 packets of information, which included talking points for landowners to speak on at meetings.

Should the government decide to go forward with building the corridor, right of way, including some rural land, would have to be purchased.

"It's a new world out there is what they want to tell us and there's no room for this anymore," Shelton said. "They want to take our land to build things the city needs. That's a bitter pill to swallow. They're going to take our land by force."

At a recent public hearing, Shelton spoke out against the Trans-Texas Corridor, addressing both the possibility of people losing homes and land as well as the possibility of those who don't lose land having to deal with 24/7 traffic noise and the loss of the rural way of life.

"The concept of the government taking our private properties in order to then lease them out to make a profit for the state is beyond unjust; it is an outrage," Shelton said at the meeting. "And the notion that I'm here tonight working to push this thing off of my place and onto my neighbor's makes the fires of hell warm my feet."

In another little piece of farm paradise, Greg Grant, a landowner who grew up in the little town of Arcadia in Shelby County, walks the woods he helped cultivate and collects the eggs the chickens laid just like he did as a little boy when the farm belonged to his grandparents. Grant can hardly believe that this land, which has been passed down to him for seven generations, is now in danger of being disturbed by the Trans-Texas Corridor. The way the map now reads, the corridor would most likely not run through Grant's property, but it would travel adjacent to it, bringing traffic noise that would disturb the peace with which Grant grew up.

"Every dime I've ever made, every second of every day was for this place," Grant said. "It's at least a generation removed from the world.

As a boy, Grant recalls begging his parents to let him visit his grandparent's farm every day. After growing up in Arcadia, Grant went off to bigger cities, but in the end he felt the pull of his roots drawing him back home again. Grant said that's the way it is for many who leave home.

"The land is a part of them," Grant said. "Everybody seems to find their way back."

He remembers the one thing he missed more than anything was the pine trees.

"I missed their smell, sound, the frost and ice on the needles," Grant said. "I could barely survive without them."

Grant still likes to visit the creek known to him and his relatives as Grandmother's Creek, where he used to sit and look over the creek while listening to Granny tell stories. It was during his youth that Grant fell in love with history, family and nature, which would eventually lead to his passion for horticulture. He currently works as a research associate for SFA's Pineywoods Native Plant Center.

As he stands next to a tree, looking out over the creek, he listens to the water flowing and the birds chirping, sounds he fears will soon be replaced by the sound of traffic on a busy highway. He says that many people focused on the future — building and expanding — don't understand why he and others love this land as much as they do. They can't go beyond thinking it's "just" trees and birds which can be found anywhere. But Grant compared his love of the land to loving an old quilt your grandmother made — one with crazy colors that can't be replaced by anything "store bought." The highway, Grant said, is more like a plain white comforter many stores sell. Grant and others don't want to give up their "grandmother's quilt" for a simple "white bed sheet."

Grant's mother, Jackie Grant, lives in a house on a hill overlooking the creek. Grant's father promised her that he would build her a house on that hill if she would marry him. But when they married, he was as "poor as a church mouse" and couldn't afford it. Years later though, Grant's father kept his promise and built his wife the house on the hill.

Grant worries that if the Trans-Texas Corridor is built next to their land, instead of the current view his mother has, she'll "look down on the world's largest highway."

Jackie Grant feels what the government is proposing can be interpreted as a simple matter of right and wrong, and they (TxDOT) are in the wrong.

"These are hallowed grounds here," she said.

Grant stressed that he and his neighbors would fight to the very end to save their land.

"If people in Texas don't fight for their land, they're not Texans," Grant said.

Bob Crump, resident of the small town of Silas in Shelby County, fears what will happen to him and everyone else if their land is taken away, and they're forced to move elsewhere. Most Silas residents are retired and elderly and don't know any other way of life.

"Most of our citizens have lived in this area most of their lives," Crump said. "Some have moved here to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the piney woods of East Texas. All of this will be destroyed."

Helen Billingsley, whose husband and children own 500 acres of land in both Huber and Silas in Shelby County, are also in the path of the proposed Trans-Texas Corridor. Her voice broke as she fought back tears talking about the land she loved and her fear of losing it all.

"This is where our grandsons love to come to roam the woods, fish in the ponds and generally explore the land to feel a part of it," Billingsley said. "In my mind's eye, I can still see our oldest grandson with arms outstretched and head leaned back experiencing the freedom and sheer joy of running along the pasture road from the top of a wooded hill to the very bottom."

Billingsley had hoped to pass the land down to her grandchildren, and them to their grandchildren.

"As my grandfather and mother used to often say, 'They are not making any more land. Take care of it and don't sell it,'" Billingsley said. "But if I-69/TTC takes the recommended preferred pathway, I won't sell it; it will be taken away from me and my family by foreigners."

Billingsley worries about what would happen to her family if their working ranch of 50 or more cattle is taken from them.

"I know that this is God's land, and we are only stewards, but we try our best to be good stewards, which means replanting pine trees when needed and protecting our streams and wildlife," Billingsley said.

Although the corridor most likely won't be built in her lifetime, Billingsley said it still breaks her heart to know her grandchildren will miss out on what she's grown up around.

"My husband and I have visited 49 of the 50 states, and I dare say that the piney woods of East Texas are right at the top of my most-beautiful list," Billingsley said. "The thought of replacing this precious little corner of God's creation with the noise, commotion, fumes and general distastefulness that a mega highway would bring is almost more than I can bear."

State Rep. Jim McReynolds, D-Lufkin, encourages everyone concerned to attend the public hearings TxDOT is hosting at different locations. According to McReynolds, the Legislature in the last session passed laws keeping TxDOT from issuing any new contracts for the corridor for two years. During the next session in January of 2009, a study group will look at the plans and determine if the corridor is truly needed, or if an alternative can be found. McReynolds worries that about 70 percent of residents currently oppose the corridor, and he said he hopes everyone will come to the meetings.

"Democracy takes place when people come together," McReynolds said. "You don't get a vote on this, but I think the agency will listen to people, and you will be taped, and it will be reviewed. I think they will listen to testimony ... This is our land and we want to be sure before Big Brother comes in and takes it that they've studied and looked at other opportunities. Showing up at these meetings is our chance to have our voice heard."

Shelton encourages everyone attending the meetings to get informed. He also encourages everyone to give written comments, which TxDOT will accept until March 19. McReynolds also stressed being polite when offering comments, since TxDOT officials are doing what they can to gather opinions before going forward.

The public hearing in Nacogdoches will be held Thursday, Feb. 14, at The Fredonia. According to, at the hearing, TxDOT staff will be available to answer project questions during an open house between 5 and 6:30 p.m. A formal presentation about the environmental study begins at 6:30 p.m., followed by comments from the public.

For more information on how to make sure your voice is heard, contact Larry Shelton at 936-462-8848.

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