Sunday, April 27, 2008

Living in limbo

Rural residents feel the push from Trans-Texas Corridor

April 27, 2008

Houston Chronicle
Copyright 2008

Minutes south of Interstate 10 and Sealy, the pastures along FM 1458 are their own silent world in the morning. Mists lift to reveal black cattle, brown and spotted horses, snow-white egrets underfoot in lush green grass.

Then a concrete mixer comes churning down the blacktop.

Just up the road is a small subdivision. More are sure to come as city dwellers, including weekenders and retirees, move out in search of a quieter, simpler life — and relief from city traffic.

Although the gradual influx may bring greater changes in the long run, what disturbs residents most is the planned Interstate 69/Trans-Texas Corridor, or I-69/TTC for short.

If it is built, the corridor likely will start out as a four-lane divided tollway. Eventually, the Texas Department of Transportation could expand it to 1,200 feet in places, with toll lanes for cars and trucks; tracks for freight and passenger trains; and space for pipelines, power lines and communications.

The exact route has yet to be determined. TxDOT has recommended the route come from a study corridor, ranging from a quarter-mile to four miles wide, between Texarkana and Mexico. Most of the route will stay close to U.S. 59, the agency says, but to speed traffic around Houston, it veers through rural land west of the city.

It is from there — the ranches and small towns of Walker, Grimes, Waller, Fort Bend and Austin counties — that some of the most unyielding opposition has come.

January through March, residents up and down the study area jammed town hall meetings and public hearings to speak against the project.

Among them were Dennis and Edith Mlcak, whose ranch is on FM 1458 near Frydek, a crossroads community founded by Czech immigrants near the turn of the century.

She grew up in Frydek and he in nearby Mixville, but the Mlcaks are part of the urban migration too. They spent 30 years in Houston before coming home.

Although TxDOT has heard a nearly unanimous negative verdict from residents of the area, Dennis Mlcak is not sure how much that matters.

"They keep pushing this thing, and it keeps marching in a forward direction, so we can't really wait and see if it will die of its own accord," he said.

The Mlcaks' friends, Dane and Maxine Rudloff, whose property lies along I-10 near Sealy, have been through this before. When I-10 was built in the 1960s, the family had to sell 13½ acres for right of way. The road cut off 50 acres from what was left.

"We could see it, but eventually we sold it," Dane Rudloff said. "My mother-in-law went to her grave fuming about that."

At least the interstate and its frontage roads were useful to local residents, he said.

The tolled I-69/TTC, he said, would be a barrier for school buses, as well as the San Felipe-Frydek Volunteer Fire Department, which serves both communities. Although Frydek residents now get water from wells, Dane Rudloff said the corridor could prevent lines from being extended there from Sealy someday.

It also would weaken social ties, Dennis Mlcak said. Although both families live outside the study area, a little cluster of buildings that includes two gathering places — St. Mary's Catholic Church and Emil Ermis' store — is well inside its boundaries.

"The bottom line is that no matter where it goes, it's going to have the same effect on the communities," said Dennis Mlcak, "and once that's severed, it's gone forever."

Familiar arguments

At the town hall meetings, residents again and again raised the same arguments: The corridor would divide communities and properties while taking valuable land out of production and off the local tax rolls.

Some said the corridor's main purpose is to carry Chinese imported goods from Mexico to northern states and Canada, with little or no benefit to Texans.

Contraband and smuggling will increase, they said, and the toll profits will go to foreigners who operate the road, while Texans would be barred from building competing routes.

Again and again, TxDOT made the same replies: Huge growth in the state's economy and population are inevitable over the next 30 years. Current roads cannot meet even today's needs, and there barely is enough tax revenue to maintain them, let alone build more.

The corridor, officials said, will reduce urban congestion and the cost of moving goods and people. And if a foreign company builds and operates it for a profit, that just means taxpayers will not foot the bill. The state of Texas will own it, and if the operator goes broke, the state will take it back.

Living in limbo

The uncertainty of the final route — the location as well as the size — leaves Lloyd and Judith Koeppen, who live deep inside the study area, in limbo.

Lloyd Koeppen, who has spent his life in Mixville, has snapshots of his house surrounded by floodwater from Allen Creek. Even if the toll road misses his property, he worries it could worsen runoff.

Should he stay or sell, he asks.

TxDOT says the final route will follow existing roads and property lines when feasible. In the 50 miles or so between I-10 and Texas 105 near Navasota, a likely candidate for the route is FM 362.

The two-lane road meanders, but more than half of it is in the recommended study corridor.

Taking it north from I-10, the views get longer and driveways farther apart. As the road crosses U.S. 290 and passes between Waller and Prairie View, development picks up again.

A small subdivision with large lots has sprouted in the prairie south of where FM 362 crosses FM 1488. One of the lots belongs to Marvin Ottmer.

Ottmer, 57, said he plans to retire there in three years. His lot is a half-mile from FM 362, but he did not hear about the corridor plan until after he closed on the property.

"They say they don't know whether they will need it or not and won't know for two or three years," he said. "You don't know whether to keep it, and you can't really sell it to anybody. Who wants to live next to a highway?"

Rick Hunley, who owns Country Living Mortgage not far from Ottmer's land, hears that often. "I don't really know the answer," he said. "Build it, and if they have to take it from you, buy another one, I suppose."

Hunley doubts the corridor will come to FM 362. He predicts the area will grow too fast for TxDOT to obtain right of way at acceptable costs and that the route will be farther west.

Already, he said, there is a 300-home subdivision and a Buddhist temple complex on Mellman Road. Not far from his office are a sprawling fish hatchery and several farms that breed or train horses.

"Soon you won't be able to buy land here," Hunley said. "It's hard to find anything less than $12,000 an acre now."

Longtime residents will try to keep land in the family, he said, but it's hard to resist the market.

Loss of seclusion

As FM 362 enters Grimes County, the land becomes hilly and forested.

On the west side is Camp Allen, the Episcopal Church retreat and conference center. Church officials fear the center would lose its prized seclusion if the corridor is built along FM 362.

Beyond are lush fields of bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush, followed by a gentle curve into White Hall.

There is a historical marker at the community center and another at Fairview Cemetery on a low hill across the road. The junction at FM 2988, on another hill, includes Whitehall Grocery and Salem Lutheran Church.

Inside the store were flight attendant Sharon Lea and her husband, Curtis, a Houston firefighter. They live in Cypress but come up on weekends to work on their retirement property.

"We've loved it here since we were little," she said — so much that when their daughter Melissa, 22, died in June, they buried her in Fairview Cemetery.

"A few months after that, we found out about this TTC," Sharon Lea said. "I don't believe a word TxDOT says. They couldn't tell us where it's going to go, but they kept telling us they understood, they understood. I don't think they really understood because if they did, they'd get the hell out of here, and they wouldn't come back."

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