The Tarrant Regional Water District’s vote to use eminent domain to acquire land for a $2.3 billion pipeline in East Texas reignited a debate Tuesday about how the agency is buying property for the massive project.
The board voted 4-1 to acquire two parcels in Henderson County — about 11.6 acres — that run through the ranch of Dallas hotelier Monty Bennett. The district says the land is needed for an integrated pipeline project that it is building in partnership with Dallas.
The project, scheduled to complete its first phase in 2018, would bring water from Lake Palestine to Dallas, as well as additional water for the district from the Richland-Chambers and Cedar Creek reservoirs. The district provides raw water to 98 percent of Tarrant County residents.
Bennett has been an outspoken critic of the pipeline, and the district’s interest in the two parcels — which run through land Bennett conveyed in December 2012 to the Lazy W District No. 1 municipal utility district — has already led to a legal battle with Bennett.
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Bennett maintains an easement through the strip of land.
In March, Bennett sued the Tarrant Regional Water District, saying it violated the Texas Open Meetings Act when it approved parts of the pipeline project. The lawsuit says the board “rubber-stamped” a decision by water district staffers and committees, with no public input.
Mary Kelleher, elected to the board in May on a slate supported by Bennett, cast the lone vote against using eminent domain. Before the board voted to acquire the two parcels — along with four others — Kelleher said the district had not exhausted other options.
“I don’t feel comfortable authorizing us to do this because I’m not sure that all attempts have been made to make sure that this is our last resort,” Kelleher said. “… I just don’t like eminent domain being used unless it’s absolutely necessary, and I’m not convinced it’s absolutely necessary.”
During Tuesday’s meeting, officials from Dallas and the water district said altering the pipeline route would likely cost millions and delay the project by at least a year. But Kelleher said it isn’t too late to change the route.
“I think the pipeline route can still be discussed, so I’m going to be opposing this. But I think we need to take our time with this,” Kelleher said “This is going to cost taxpayers in Dallas and in Tarrant … a lot of money if we don’t take our time and do this and make sure it is done correctly.”
But board member Jim Lane said Bennett’s position has been not to negotiate with the district since he was first contacted more than two years ago.
“He told us back in 2011 that it ain’t going to happen,” Lane said.
Attempts to obtain comment from Bennett’s lawyers were unsuccessful Tuesday.
Lack of trust
Kelleher said she’s hesitant partly because she doesn’t trust Jim Oliver, the general manager of the water district.
She has filed a number of requests with the district under the Freedom of Information Act and open-meetings laws seeking information on whether certain committee meetings were held behind closed doors, in violation of the law, as well as how the water district selected certain contractors.
But Lane said the pipeline project has been thoroughly reviewed by far more people than just Oliver. He said the staffs of the Tarrant Regional Water District and Dallas Water Utilities have worked on the project.
And Jody Puckett, director of Dallas Water Utilities, said that the best route was chosen for the pipeline and that the two entities had saved about $500 million by working together.
In one exchange, Lane and Kelleher debated the merits of using eminent domain.
“This is an issue that we have vetted,” Lane said. “We have asked Dallas. We have asked Tarrant County. There is no other way. I’m sorry for Mr. Bennett, and you’re a champion for Mr. Bennett and I understand that. It’s perfectly clear. It’s all right, but it’s not in the best interest of the public and the taxpayers.”
Kelleher said: “That is your opinion.”
Lane said: “It is my opinion but it seems to be other people’s opinion, too. Dallas’ opinion and this staff’s opinion.”
Kelleher said: “You have more faith than I do. I don’t trust that all attempts have been made.”
A flurry of lawsuits
In last year’s board election, Bennett contributed $105,000 to Austin-based Hillco Partners, which funneled money to water district candidate John Basham. A Dallas-based rancher, Bennie Bray, also contributed $100,000 to Basham.
Basham ran on a slate with Kelleher and Timothy Nold. Kelleher won a board seat, but Basham and Nold lost to incumbents Vic Henderson and Jack Stevens.
After the election, Basham and Fort Worth minister Kyev Tatum both filed lawsuits arguing that the district violated the Texas Constitution by not holding board elections in 2014. In the Basham suit, a state district judge refused to order the district to call an election, but that case could still be appealed to federal court.
In the Tatum suit, a federal judge ruled that the case must first be heard in state court.
In January, Kelleher filed a petition that would compel Oliver and other employees to answer questions under oath. Under Texas law, a petition for depositions may be filed by a person seeking to gather facts before filing a lawsuit.
The district has also challenged the jurisdiction of Bennett’s lawsuit, but that motion was denied in 153rd District Court. The district appealed to the 2nd Court of Appeals in Fort Worth, which has heard arguments but has not ruled.