Monday, May 19, 2008

The 'T' is for 'Taking'

Mesa: Picken's rep said mogul's ‘desire to be fair'

May 19, 2008

The Pampa News
Copyright 2008

CHILDRESS - Boone Pickens has a public relations problem.

About 120 people crowded into the Childress Fair Park Auditorium here this month for a town hall meeting with a handful of state legislators in response to a series of meetings Pickens' Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1 and Mesa Power are holding in connection with their plan to buy up a right-of-way from the Texas Panhandle to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex for a water pipeline and power transmission lines. But significantly, Ray Floyd of Collingsworth County voiced a comment at the Childress meeting that others mentioned while waiting for the meeting to start.

“The way it was presented to me was very offensive,” Floyd said.

He said if Pickens had approached the people here differently, it could have helped everyone.

“It looks like it is for his benefit only,” Floyd said.

A number of people commented that when they went to one of Mesa's meetings, Pickens wasn't there.

When State Sen. Robert Duncan asked the people crowded into the auditorium here if the legislators present should support Mesa's project, nary a hand was raised. When he asked if the lawmakers should oppose it, almost everyone raised their hand. Some raised two hands.

The other problem at the meeting was that while most everybody agreed that the wind power project was good, transporting water from the Texas Panhandle was outrageous. No one wanted to talk about eminent domain. They only wanted to talk about sending Panhandle water to Dallas.

Mike Boswell with the Mesa Group said there were a lot of misconceptions about the project as he watched from the back of the auditorium.

Not the least of the misconceptions was that many of the speakers talked of their wells going dry and wanting to keep the water in the Ogallala Aquifer in the Panhandle. The problem in most cases was that the speakers farmed or ranched southeast of the Panhandle and do not get their water from the Ogallala.

In April, Mesa Power, a limited partnership formed by Pickens to produce electricity from the world's largest windmill farm, sent letters out to landowners in counties through which the proposed transmission lines will pass, inviting them to one of five open houses.

At the open houses, Mesa officials could check their computers and tell landowners if the right-of-way is targeting their land.

Mesa and the freshwater district are proposing a $3.5 billion joint project that will require a right-of-way of more than 250 miles. Construction is expected to begin in 2009, according to Ron Bassett, president of Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1.

State Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock, said he and neighboring State Sens. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, were getting numerous calls from their constituents concerning the Mesa project and hastily scheduled their town hall meeting here to listen to constituents.

Duncan, Seliger and Estes were joined at the meeting by State Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, and Delwyn Jones, R-Lubbock.

Duncan said Rep. Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, House Appropriations Committee chairman, had expressed interest in the meeting but had a scheduling conflict as did Rep. John Smithee, R-Amarillo.

The meeting was cast as a discussion of eminent domain, a hot topic in Texas since the Supreme Court's Kelo decision, in which the court said a local government could take over private property and give it to developers if it would improve the value of the property, and since Gov. Rick Perry's proposed the Trans Texas Corridor, a toll road from Oklahoma to the Mexican border, but most of the speakers spoke out against sending water from the Panhandle to the Metroplex.

Through two changes in state law during last year's Texas Legislative Session, Pickens formed the Roberts County Fresh Water Conservation District No. 1 on eight acres of his Mesa Vista Ranch in Roberts County. The five directors include his ranch manager and ranch manager's wife and three Mesa associates in Dallas.

The fresh water supply district, under Texas law, has taxing authority, condemnation authority under eminent domain and the authority to sell bonds.

The first was a bill that was amended was initially intended to solve some problems in the Houston area. That bill changed the operation of governance of a fresh water district to allow only property owners in fresh water districts to serve a directors, but it also said property owners do not have to reside in the district.

“In other words,” Duncan said, “you could create a district technically that didn't even have enough people to constitute a board - you have to have five - as long as you had property ownership with people outside the county, they could govern the fresh water district.”

He said that while the amendments to the law passed during the last session, there is another chance to amend the law when the legislature meets again, beginning in January.

The other piece of legislation was Senate Bill 3, the omnibus water bill.

Duncan said that in the Senate there was an attempt to put an amendment on the bill to allow electrical transmission lines to follow water lines.

“In other words,” Duncan said, “if you wanted to develop transmission lines you could piggyback on a fresh water district's pipeline and use that fresh water district's authority of eminent domain to run that transmission line down that right-of-way.”

Duncan said Seliger fought successfully to defeat that in the Senate, but in the House and ultimately in the final bill that amendment was added back and passed in the waning moments of the legislature. But while seemingly everybody at the Childress meeting appeared to support the wind energy initiative, it was the water they were worried about.

About 10 years ago, Pickens established Mesa Water in what he said was an effort to protect the water beneath his Roberts County ranch from being sucked out by the City of Amarillo and the Canadian River Municipal Water Authority, who were buying up water rights at the time. Pickens said at the time, he would develop the water resources and sell the water to thirsty cities downstate.

Duncan said he believes that there are more viable and economical water alternatives available to Dallas and other major metropolitan areas than a multi-billion dollar pipeline from the Panhandle to Dallas.

“This is not an attack on Mesa,” Duncan said. “It's not an attack on Boone Pickens, and I don't think that would be appropriate for us to do that.”

The meeting in Childress, he said, was a discussion of the issues.

“I disagree with Mesa with regard to the procedure that they're going through in using this fresh water district in a way it wasn't designed,” Duncan said. “That's my position as a member of the Texas Senate.”

But Ron Harris, a former County Judge for Collin County for 16 years and now a consultant for Mesa, pleaded with those present to have patience. Harris took to the podium to ask landowners only for a chance for Mesa's land staff to make an offer before they said no.

“We're fair in compensating all of you for your land and any damages,” Harris said. “Mesa is not here to steal your land.”

Harris said Pickens' desire is to be fair as he moves on the right-of-way issue. Harris said he is not aware of anyone who has gone to the length that Mesa has to be fair in their dealings.

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