Jerry Patterson’s General Land Office will come under legislative scrutiny in the coming months – a move welcomed by some conservationists who have complained that the Republican land commissioner has sacrificed good land stewardship in his zeal to make real estate deals.
“There has been a pattern of abuse at the General Land Office as it relates to public lands and parklands, and I think the review is welcome,” said Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas. He cited among examples the controversial proposed sale of the Christmas Mountains near Big Bend National Park.
“There likely needs to be greater protection to protect our public lands from being sold off,” Metzger said.
But a spokesman for Patterson said the land office welcomed the review, which he characterized as routine. He said the agency is little understood.
“The land office does every transaction publicly and is audited,” said spokesman Jim Suydam. “I won’t predict whether there will be any change or not [as a result of the review], but if more people can understand what the land office’s role is, they’ll better appreciate what we do.”
Also Tuesday, Patterson was named in lawsuits over a move to develop wind power along the Texas coast. Conservationists have complained that proposed wind generators will damage the natural habitat in Kenedy County, south of Corpus Christi.
The land office is charged with managing 20.3 million acres of state lands and mineral-rights properties. The agency’s responsibilities include the leasing of drilling rights on state lands, which produces revenue for the Permanent School Fund. The agency also buys and sells property.
However, in recent years, the agency presided over the proposed sale of parkland at Eagle Mountain Lake in Fort Worth to private developers. That land remained in public hands after an outcry.
Patterson has also proposed selling the 9,269-acre Christmas Mountains to private interests, even though the agency had agreed that the tract would remain in state hands or go to the National Park Service.
After public outcry, the Texas School Land Board, over which Patterson presides, agreed to delay the auction until February so the National Park Service can have time to make an offer on the property.
Last week, House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, directed the House Committee on Land and Resource Management to “examine the authority of the General Land Office, the School Land Board, and similar state agencies to engage in various types of real estate transactions, and determine the appropriateness of this authority.”
It’s customary for House speakers to announce such “interim charges” before a regular legislative session to help set the agenda for incoming lawmakers. The next session begins in 2009.
Metzger praised the new scrutiny of the land office and said lawmakers should review the state law that Patterson’s office has said prevents it from donating the Christmas Mountains to the National Park Service.
A representative of the National Park Service has said it would greatly complicate and slow any potential transaction if the land office insists on being paid.
Wind power lawsuits
Lawsuits filed in state and federal court Tuesday seek an injunction against Patterson and the Texas Public Utility Commission over a wind power project proposed for Kenedy County in South Texas. The lawsuits say the state should have conducted an environmental review, according to the Coastal Habitat Alliance, which filed the suits.
The organization says the wind turbines could harm wetlands, endangered species and migratory birds. It alleges that the PUC has blocked public input, and that Patterson withheld important information from the federal government and the public relating to the state’s Texas Coastal Management Program.
Patterson spokesman Suydam said that the land office will file a legal response but that “Commissioner Patterson’s efforts to develop offshore wind power are not affected by this litigation, which focuses on the siting process for onshore wind farms.” Suydam said offshore wind farms undergo a different environmental review than onshore wind projects.
Terry Hadley, a spokesman for the Public Utility Commission, said that agency does not have authority over the electric generation issues cited by the plaintiffs. Hadley said the state attorney general’s office will defend the PUC in the case.
By R. A. Dyer
5 December 2007
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