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Water, wind plan catches flak; Landowners want lawmakers to oppose Pickens, district

CHILDRESS – It was an unhappy group of about 120 people who met Friday to tell legislators they want something done.

“You know how we feel – act on that,” said Liz Shipp, a resident of the southeast Panhandle where T. Boone Pickens’ Mesa Power and a water district want to get a right of way to send water and wind energy to larger cities in the state.

But Mesa representatives asked for patience.

“Give our land contract staff … a chance before you draw a line in the sand,” said Ron Harris, a Mesa consultant. “Mesa is not here to steal your land.”

Individuals expressed concern about the possibility their land would be condemned for the project while others objected to exporting water downstate.

Mesa and the Roberts County Fresh Water District No. 1 plan to begin acquiring right of way and designing the water pipeline this year, according to an information packet from the company. Construction of high-voltage power lines for the wind energy would begin next year.

“How do we act with this being rammed down our throats in the next year?” said Stephen Martin, who farms in Gray and Roberts counties.

There is no rush for action, according to state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock.

“Eminent domain takes awhile,” he said. “You don’t have to sign anything.”

The crowd consensus was that they wanted Duncan, Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, and State Rep. David Swinford, R-Dumas, who all attended the meeting, to oppose the Mesa project.

Duncan asked for a show of hands, and not one hand went up to support the project, and almost every person raised their hand to deny support, some holding up both hands.

The fresh water district, created by the votes of only the ranch foreman and his wife who live on Pickens’ Roberts County ranch, is the entity that can use eminent domain to get land for which it can’t make a deal.

A local board or judge would determine the price an owner must accept if there is a dispute.

The district came about because of two amendments passed by the Texas Legislature to benefit districts in the Houston area in the last session. Duncan said the measures were not scrutinized.

“We have an opportunity to amend that,” he said.

Seliger agreed.

“Anything is possible, as long as the legislation is constitutional,” he said.

Condemnation is not a new process, but it usually is used by entities representing a larger number of constituents.

“I don’t think eminent domain should be used to benefit one individual,” said Childress County Judge Jay Mayden.

Some also wanted the issue of exporting water from one region to another revisited.

“I think this issue needs some very close examination in the next legislative session,” said Roberts County Judge Vernon Cook.

Mesa has had five recent meetings to explain the project to people who might be affected.

“I don’t know that we need to take anything away. What they need to take away is an understanding of our commitment,” said Mesa spokesman Jay Rosser. “Is it unusual for landowners to have concerns? They should have concerns.”

By Kevin Welch

Amarillo Globe-News

17 May 2008