Thursday, May 22, 2008

“This was just snuck in on us. But everyone here should band together to stop it.”

Seeking answers

Holliday residents attend right-of-way project forum

May 22, 2008

By Lara K. Richards
Witchia Falls Times Record News
Copyright 2008

HOLLIDAY — T. Boone Pickens’ ears must have been ringing Thursday night.

The billionaire oil tycoon got called every name in the book by Wichita and Archer county residents who attended an open house about his right-of-way project last evening.

Two Pickens’ companies — Mesa Power LP and the Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1 — plan to build a water pipeline and electric transmission lines that run smack dab through several North Texas counties.

Joyce, an Archer County resident who requested her last name not be used, fanned herself furiously with a leaflet as she tried to calm herself down.

“This is not the government doing this. This is a private business taking my land,” she said as she wiped sweat from her brow. “(T. Boone Pickens) already has millions and billions and trillions of dollars. Why does he need to mess up our lives?”

Joyce was dejected to learn that the project runs directly across a tract of land she and her husband own about six miles south of Wichita Falls off Texas 79.

“We just built a home. We moved in in December,” she said of their 4,000-square-foot, quarter-million-dollar investment. “Me and my husband built the home ourselves. It took us four years to finish it.”

A ring of sweat collected on the neckline of her red shirt.

“I’m so furious, I can’t see straight. They want to run it right through my property,” she said.

About 100 landowners packed the Archer Community Center in Holliday last night to get information about Picken’s plans. Representatives from various facets of the project — from the environmental impact to the timeline to land contracting — were on hand to meet one on one with residents.

Attendees were stacked up a dozen deep behind two areas where homeowners could see on an interactive map exactly where the lines would cross their property.

Thune Cannon, chief of staff for State Rep. David Farabee of Wichita Falls, said his office has received around 30 calls so far about the project.

“People are calling just wanting answers right now,” he said. “The good thing about this (open house) is hopefully they’ll get their answers tonight. If they need more information or help, hopefully then we can help them dig into things if they ask.”

Cannon said he understood the concern and worry that many people have about the project.

“I think there’s the fear of the unknown,” he said. “And quite frankly, people want to protect their property.”

The project runs east through Hardeman and Wilbarger counties before turning southeast and traveling through Wichita, Archer, Clay and Jack counties.

Mesa Power intends to transport wind-generated power from the Panhandle to customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area through transmission lines that run across the area. The water district plans to pump water from the Ogallala Aquifer eastward to the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well.

The two companies sent out letters about a month ago to around 1,100 landowners in 11 counties in the Texas Panhandle and North Texas informing them of the project. The companies have piggy-backed their plans to obtain the right of way for the project.

In the packet landowners received, many were shocked to find a copy of the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights, which explains in detail the concept of eminent domain.

Those are not words that landowner Francis Mackey ever wants to hear, she said Thursday at the open house.

“The thing that hit me (with this project) was eminent domain,” she said. “I hate those words. They’re not considering anything except them making money. It’s unfair.”

Mackey said her land just off FM 1954 had been in her family for more than 100 years.

“We have land that we could sell for lots, and this project will hinder that,” she said. “And if we have wheat fields planted and they come in with their big equipment, it will mash everything down. It’s got me upset.”

Mackey said she could fuss all she wanted, but the end result was that she couldn’t control what the Pickens’ companies did with her land.

“And then they’re like, ‘If you don’t want to take (the money) we give you, we’re gonna take your property anyway,’ “ she said, flailing her arms. “Is this America or Russia?”

Steve Zerangue, a project spokesman with the issues management firm of Harris Deville & Associates, which is working with Pickens on the project, stressed that eminent domain was a last resort.

Typically in projects of this nature, only around 5 percent of the negotiations between company and landowners end up in court, he said.

“We are optimistic we’ll be able to get most of these negotiations done without resorting to that,” he said.

Don’t be so sure, Mr. Pickens, Joyce said.

“He doesn’t have enough money to pay me. I don’t want it on my property, period,” she said. “I don’t want this, at all.”

Joyce said she felt like the entire project, including the passage of legislation last session that enabled Pickens’ to do the joint right-of-way project, hoodwinked rural landowners.

“This was just snuck in on us,” she said, still mad. “But everyone here should band together to stop it.”

© 2008 Witchita Falls Times Record News

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