Thursday, April 10, 2008

"This is government run amok. This is exactly what the framers of our constitution were afraid of. This is not what our country was founded on."

Bracing for the road ahead: Corridor project endangers Cass County ranch

April 10, 2008

Country World News
Copyright 2008

Joe Harrison, 47, never imagined he’d be fighting to save the land his parents purchased more than 40 years ago.

If the project goes through, Harrison and his family could lose a large portion of their land. Harrison said the land has provided a livelihood for his family for more than four decades. The family grows timber, produces bahia seed, hay and leases cattle pasture on the land.

“We’re a working tree farm,” noted Harrison. “We’re also on a state managed wildlife program. We have to be diverse to make it these days.”

Harrison said the land has never made the family rich, but they’ve all taken great pride in operating the ranch.

“We’ve never made a killing out of any of this,” he said. “Nobody does this kind of work for the money, they do it because their heart’s in it.”

Today, Harrison is pouring his heart into fighting the massive Trans-Texas Corridor (consisting of TTC-35 and TTC-69). Harrison, who will be affected by the TTC-69 portion of the project, said he first heard about the original project (TTC-35) as a member of Texas Farm Bureau. Later, he said, he learned about the 69 portion of the project (then being referred to as I-69).

“I feel very misled and lied to by the Texas Department of Transportation,” said Harrison. “They were talking about 69 being an interstate.” It was later, he said, he learned otherwise: The I-69 project was really a branch of the TTC. “We have to have infrastructure, but this is not an infrastructure project,” he said. “An infrastructure project benefits the public good. This is not going to benefit the average Texan.”

When the maps of the proposed TTC-69 project were released, Harrison made a shocking discovery: His family’s farm and the house where his parents reside sit directly in the proposed pathway of the project.

“You felt like a burglar had been in your house,” recalled Harrison.

Peggy, 69, said she was shocked.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said while starring at a map and pointing to the location of Big Sandy Ranch.

As introduced, House Bill 2006 may have offered some hope for the Harrisons. The bill set strict limitations on eminent domain. In addition, the bill, if enacted, would have allowed property owners to sue if access to their property was “diminished” because of road projects or construction. Texas Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the bill in June 2007.

“My name is now on a petition calling for his impeachment,” said Harrison, who noted that Perry was elected under the Republican platform, which clearly states an opposition to the project.

The project, which would require a 1,200-foot easement, would take approximately one-half of a million acres from Texas landowners. Current plans indicate the project will be built by private sector companies, led by the Spanish-owned company Cintra, a company that has a history of producing and operating major toll roads. Under tentative agreements, Cintra would collect the profits from the toll roads for at least 50 years and reserve the rights to lease the corridor. The estimated cost of the project is more than $100 billion.

Harrison said financial implications for the state and taxpayers should have all the citizens of Texas in an uproar, even if their land is not at risk. “This is going to destroy our local economies,” he said.

Land taken for the building of the toll road will be removed from a county’s tax base. The toll road will bypass many local services, which, Harrison added, rely on traveling motorists to survive.

In addition, the popular timber industry of the area would also be affected.

“Timber is the number one crop in this county,” Harrison said. “Between the amount of timberland they would take and the new route you would have to take to get it to market, it will devalue timber in this area tremendously.”

He added that the other implications go beyond the economics. He said the situation highlights a lot about the state of Texas and its government.

“Any Texan should be offended,” Harrison noted. “If they have the right to do this to us, then they have the right to do it to you.

“It doesn’t matter if your land is at risk - the welfare of your family is, by the authority they are trying to give the government to take your land, for what amounts to a private project.

“A lot of good people bled and died to free this state from Mexico and now we have a government wanting to give a half-million acres to a Spanish company. This is government run amok. This is exactly what the framers of our constitution were afraid of. This is not what our country was founded on.

“You’re talking about displacing one-million people. You’re talking about numbers that are greater than some of the worst atrocities in history.”

Despite being enticed with the guarantee the family would receive fair market value for their land, the Harrisons remain not only skeptical, but angry. “The Highway Department is not known as a high-dollar payer when they take your land,” said Peggy. “We didn’t inherit our land, my husband and I bought it.”

Regardless if the land was inherited or not, Harrison said there is no “fair” price for property owners affected by the corridor.

“There is not enough money to replace this place and what it means,” said Harrison. “You’re talking about wiping out a family history and there isn’t a dollar amount for that.”

Harrison said many people in his area are waiting to find out what will happen next. Families with inherited land aren’t building or investing money in the property. Harrison and his wife, who planned to build a house atop a large hill on their property, are waiting too. If the 69 portion of the corridor comes through their land, the Indian mounds, the Civil War graveyard, his parents’ house, and his future home will all be in jeopardy.
“It could take between 500 and 1,400 acres (of the family land), depending on where they chose to bisect,” noted Harrison. “If you cut it in half, it’s useless.”

While the future of his family’s farm remains in the balance, Harrison said he has a responsibility to uphold to his family. Timber on Big Sandy Ranch is planted with the intention that someday it will fund a child or grandchild’s future, maybe even college education. Harrison said he still works each day with those intentions in mind.

“We have an investment in our future in what we’ve put in planting timber and tending timber,” he explained. “We have to keep going day to day. We can’t put our lives on hold. That’s what’s hardest about this.

“I have to work everyday to keep this place going. Nobody should be forced to sell what they’ve invested in.”

The Harrisons still have hope. With public opinion of the TTC increasingly poor, Peggy said she hopes the people of Texas are able to have their voices heard.

“It should go up for a direct vote,” she said. “Something that major - people should have a say in that.”

Harrison said the corridors can be fought, but it will require some effort.

“There are ways, on a grassroots level, to make this thing so expensive, they won’t want to do it,” he said. “It’s going to take making it costly enough and difficult enough, and quite frankly it’s going to take politicians realizing that there are going to be ramifications for this.”

Harrison added that he has also signed a petition (being circulated by the Independent party of Texas) calling for a Congressional investigation into the TTC projects. He encouraged others to attend corridor meetings, work with grassroots groups and stay informed.

“This is about taking people’s land,” he said. “I should have the right to determine if I sell or not.

“If you care at all about justice, this will offend you.”

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