Wednesday, July 16, 2008

“Bell County sits here like a stepchild and they’re cramming this corridor down our throats.”

Local commission takes on Trans-Texas Corridor

Jul 16, 2008

by Fred Afflerbach
Temple Daily Telegram
Copyright 2008

HOLLAND - The mayor of this small community 15 miles south of Temple said Tuesday the commission of which she is president is ready to take by the horns the Texas Department of Transportation and its controversial proposal, the Trans-Texas Corridor.

Armed with an 80-page manual, “How to Fight the TTC,” and backed by two non-profits who say they protect private property rights, Holland mayor Mae Smith said rural Bell County is ready for a fight.

“Bell County sits here like a stepchild and they’re cramming this corridor down our throats,” Ms. Smith said, regarding the commission’s relationship with TxDOT. “We are past sitting here at the table with them, finding out what they’ve done, what they’ve not done, blah, blah. We’ve done that twice with them for four and a half hours each.”

The commission with the long name - Eastern Central Texas Sub-Regional Planning Commission - formed in the summer of 2007. It includes mayors and school board administrators from Holland, Rogers, Bartlett and Little River-Academy.

In June, the commission petitioned the Federal Highway Administration to provide an environmental impact statement it could present to TxDOT. Until the study is released, both parties are at a standoff.

Chris Lippincott, TxDOT spokesman, said they have worked hard to address the commission’s concerns.

“We’re committed to working with them. We would not be doing anyone favors if we were less than thorough.” Lippincott said a complicated project like the corridor is “not always a linear process.”

Members say the planning commission is not your ordinary grass-roots organization. Formed under Texas Local Government Code 391, it has some teeth. According to the code, city and county officials can form a regional planning commission that “can force state agencies to coordinate with their activities.”

And the group is growing.

Buckholts Mayor Hal Senkel said the group asked them to join after it learned the proposed corridor route included this Milam County community of several hundred.

“Now that the corridor is supposed to go right down through the middle of the Buckholts area, they asked us to join up with them so they could fight for us, too,” Senkel said. “We don’t want the corridor there either. We have some of the choice black land anywhere around. We’ve got high producing land, crop land.”

Ms. Smith’s comments came at a workshop at which a state conservation expert met with the commission. Members say TxDOT has not consulted experts while assessing the corridor’s environmental impact on Bell County farmland.

Donald Gohmert with the Natural Resource Conservation Service said he could only act in an advisory capacity.

The group pushed Gohmert to provide information that detailed the value of the lost prime farmland and watershed changes the corridor would cause.

Ms. Smith said they had to call upon the NRCS themselves because their concerns have fallen on deaf ears at TxDOT.

“They haven’t considered our farms. They haven’t considered our schools. They haven’t considered the tax base loss. Every question we ask ‘When are you going to consider this,’ they say that’s in phase two.”

TxDOT is currently conducting phase one, which they say is the first of two environmental impact studies. The first will identify a broad area; the second, called phase two, will narrow the scope of the project.

Ms. Smith said she isn’t buying that timeline. If the commission doesn’t get its concerns considered now, during phase one, she said, phase two would be too late.

“Phase two is when you put the pavement down,” Ms. Smith said.

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