JACKSBORO – Muted anger and a rustle of frustration moseyed through the Twin Lakes Community Activity Center in Jacksboro Wednesday night.
Around 75 area landowners attended an open house sponsored by billionaire T. Boone Pickens’ company Mesa Power in an effort to learn more about the company’s right-of-way project that will run a water pipeline and electric transmission lines through the heart of several North Texas counties.
The project aims to transport water from the Ogallala Aquifer in the Panhandle to the Dallas-Fort Worth area as well as send electricity generated from a Panhandle-based wind farm eastward to the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Jack County landowner Drexel West smoked a cigarette with noticeable aggravation outside the building after discussing the project with representatives of Harris Deville & Associates, an issues management firm hired by Pickens to handle the public relations end of the project.
West’s assessment of the issue echoed many in the building.
“They are coming through, one way or the other, whether I like it or not,” he said.
One of West’s main worries is that the project will cut off his access to the three sections of land he owns in the county, he said.
“As long as I can keep total use of the land, they can put whatever they want underground,” he said. “I have power lines running across it already. If they follow that, no problem. As long as they don’t shut me off.”
Wednesday’s open house was merely the first step in establishing a dialogue with landowners, said HDA project spokesman Steve Zerangue.
“We want to talk to people to establish a relationship because that’s what we’re going to need going through this process,” he said. “Anything they want to ask tonight, they can. Sometimes the answer they get might not be what they want to hear.”
Almost a dozen information booths manned by HDA staff lined the walls halfway through the center, covering topics such as the timeline of the project to safety to technical and environmental aspects.
One interactive booth allowed property owners to view exactly where the proposed pipeline will cross their land. The North Texas end of the project travels across Hardeman, Wilbarger, Wichita, Archer and Clay counties before ending in central Jack County.
Jody Withers, communications director for Sen. Craig Estes of Wichita Falls, said the ability to see the exact trajectory of the pipeline proved a useful tool for many attendees.
“Some people who came in, they saw where the right of way was, it wasn’t on their property, so they left,” he said. “Other people came in, saw where the right of way was, and got angry.”
Withers said there was still a noticeable level of frustration in the building.
“Of course, I think everyone would have liked to have more of a forum to discuss things,” he said. “I think it would have been more beneficial to our constituents.”
Zerangue defended the style of Wednesday’s meeting, arguing that it allowed for more personal questions to be answered.
“The informal exchange of information gives the landowners the opportunity to meet individually with staff to get their individual questions answered,” he said. “With a presentation … a meeting may start at 5 p.m., but what if someone can’t get here until later? If someone is a little shy, they may not ask a question in a roomful of people. This way, people can talk to someone one on one instead.”
Zerangue also explained the manner in which Mesa Power informed landowners about the upcoming project, another bone of contention for many who were notified.
Around 1,100 homeowners in 11 counties in the Panhandle and North Texas received letters discussing the project last month. An additional 300 or so packets were also mailed to area leaders.
For most people, the letter was the first mention of Pickens’ massive plan that they had heard of.
Zerangue said he realized that the letter came as a shock to landowners, but it was simply the most effective way to reach everyone.
“If we just went in and held meetings, there’s no way we could get everyone to come. We thought the best way to get the information out was to send out the letters,” he said.
Zerangue said that the inclusion of the Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights, which discusses eminent domain, might have scared some people as well.
“But (eminent domain) is a last resort,” he said. “We hope to negotiate with people. I’m sure it upset some people and we understand that.”
The next step in the project involves surveying land, Zerangue said. Mesa Power will be contacting landowners by phone and by mail seeking permission to come onto the property to start the surveying process.
After that, the two sides will sit down to talk specific dollar figures and the exact path the lines will take, Zerangue said.
MichealCampsey, whose family owns several thousand acres in Jack County, watched intently Wednesday evening as an HDA staffer showed him where the lines would cross his land.
It hits Campsey’s property in two spots, the landowner said.
“We’ve already got a power line running right through, so I’m hoping they can stay with it,” he said.
Zerangue said 50 percent of the rights of way would parallel existing rights of way. Another 25 percent would travel down property lines.
With the final 25 percent, Zerangue said, Mesa Power would work to take numerous issues into consideration.
“We certainly want to avoid any sensitive situations,” he said, such as disrupting homes, cemeteries, archaeological sites or special wildlife habitats.
“As we start working with landowners, we’ll work to protect things. Going through the middle of someone’s house is absolutely a last resort.”
Wilson Scaling, Clay County commissioner and rancher, said the lines will travel about three miles across his property. So far, the plans look like they will follow existing power lines that are currently on his ranch.
But there’s still the disruption to the land that the numerous construction projects will cause, he said.
“If they put in a pipeline, it’ll take a couple of years, at least three, to get the ground cleaned up and re-established,” he said. “About the time you’ve got it cleaned up, they may have another project coming through.”
Scaling was also irked with the fact that Pickens currently has no buyer for the water he’s shipping east.
“I guess the main thing that’s bothering me is that the Tarrant County Water District doesn’t want the water,” he said.
Several issues with the project riled another landowner, who asked that her name not be printed. For her, it boils down to urban areas taking advantage of rural residents.
“I have a little problem with them taking water out of the Panhandle so folks in Dallas and Fort Worth can water their lawns,” she said. “I don’t live up there, but I’m still upset about it.”
She worried about the effects that taking water out of the aquifer for a prolonged period of time would have on the agriculture sector in the Panhandle as well.
“They grow a lot of our wheat. They have lots of cattle,” she said.
And then there’s the uncertainty of the local environmental impact, she said.
“I’m concerned about them coming in and tearing up Jack County to do this,” she said. “Will it damage our hunting? Will it damage our wildlife? It’s just another case of the large Metroplexes doing whatever they want to regardless of the rural people.”
Zerangue stressed that the company welcomes calls from people seeking more information and even landowners calling with complaints.
“We don’t want people to be shy. If they want to fuss at us, that’s fine, too,” he said.
Another open house with Mesa Power is scheduled for this evening in Holliday.
Mesa Power is holding another open house about the right-of-way project this evening.
The event will be held in Holliday from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at the Archer Activity Center just off Business 277.
By Lara K. Richards
22 May 2008
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