Opposition high for projects; West Texas lawmakers, landowners leery of Pickens’ plan to get rights of way
CHILDRESS, Texas – Nearly all of some 175 landowners raised their hands during a meeting here Friday when a West Texas lawmaker asked how many wanted legislators to oppose billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ efforts to obtain rights of way for water pipeline and electricity transmission lines.
The lines would also pass through parts of Archer, Hardeman, Jack, Wichita and Wilbarger counties. A similar meeting has been scheduled Thursday in Holliday.
One landowner shouted “Do it,” during the show of hands urging lawmakers fight Pickens’ attempts to obtain rights of way to build the world’s largest wind farm and to ship water from the Panhandle to thirsty areas downstate.
No one – not even Pickens’ representatives – raised their hands when state Sen. Bob Duncan asked who wanted lawmakers to support the projects.
Duncan, R-Lubbock, and other lawmakers, told landowners that two amendments – one added to an omnibus statewide water bill (SB 3) late last session and another pertaining to how a fresh water supply district can be formed and governed – are allowing Pickens to obtain rights of way needed for the water and wind projects.
One landowner wondered whether the Legislature, which goes back into session in January, can undo measures it passed last year.
“Isn’t it a little late to take that vote, because haven’t you already supported it?” asked Beverly Gooden.
“We have an opportunity to amend those,” Duncan replied, adding that the amendments were “stuck into big bills at the last minute” and were not vetted.
Duncan and state Sen. Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, arranged the meeting after a flood of calls from landowners about letters they received from Pickens’ representatives. Also attending were state Sen. Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, and Texas Reps. Delwin Jones, R-Lubbock, and David Swinford, R-Amarillo. Their districts cover areas in which Pickens is seeking the rights of way.
Last month, the oil and investment tycoon’s representatives sent letters to about 1,100 landowners along a proposed 250-mile path through 11 Panhandle and Central Texas counties telling them their “property may be affected” in obtaining rights of way for construction of an underground pipeline and aboveground electrical transmission lines, the letter stated.
Pickens spokesman Jay Rosser said after the meeting that landowners should consider the benefits of the two projects.
“The legislation is leading to one of the greatest economic development initiatives in the history of the Texas Panhandle,” he said in an e-mail. “It would come as a great surprise, and a great disappointment to residents there, if the Legislature gave any serious thought to stymieing that opportunity.”
The two delivery systems will allow Pickens to transport water from the Ogallala Aquifer – though he has no buyer yet – and deliver wind energy to “customers in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and potentially elsewhere,” the letter states.
Pickens is forging ahead even before obtaining rights of way.
On Thursday, officials with Mesa Power, LP announced the company will buy 667 wind turbines from General Electric Co. It will build the first of four phases of the $12 billion project.
When completed, the 2,700 turbine wind farm will be capable of producing enough electricity to power 1.3 million homes.
Construction of the pipeline and transmission lines was expected to begin in 2009 under the auspices of the Roberts County Fresh Water Supply District No. 1 and Mesa Power. The only two residents living within the eight-acre water district – both Pickens’ employees – voted to approve its creation in November.
Rosser said the goal is to minimize the impact the rights of way have on landowners.
The letter also sought permission to survey from landowners whose “property lies along this preliminary route.” There was also information about informal open houses in various towns nearby the proposed route and two of five scheduled gatherings remain – in Jacksboro and Holliday – next week.
Ron Harris, who works for Pickens, urged landowners to not “draw a line in the sand” too quickly.
“It is our goal to be more than fair in compensating all of you for your land and any damages,” Harris said. “Mesa is not here to steal your land. Give them a chance. The desire of Mr. Pickens is to be fair as he moves through on this right of way.”
If Pickens and the landowners can’t reach agreement on payments for rights of way, the water district, a governmental entity, can use eminent domain to sue landowners for condemnation of their property.
Until last year, though, the wind project couldn’t have been included in the process of obtaining rights of way.
Lawmakers in the last legislative session voted to allow renewable and clean-coal energy projects to piggyback obtaining rights of way with a district like the one Pickens formed last year to “construct, maintain, and operate transmission lines.”
Landowner Liz Shipp confronted the lawmakers.
“I think our challenge to you is you know how we feel,” said the Wheeler County resident. “Act on that.”
Times Record News staff contributed to this report.
17 May 2008
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