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Feature: Wednesday, January 25, 2006
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Tarrant Regional Water District to public: This means you.
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Jim Oliver oversees the district’s $60 million budget.
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Water board equipment at rest at the 1,200-acre camp.
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James said that boulders were used to block the road to the river.
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Water district records on the Bridgeport camp leave some questions unanswered.
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James and Hooks keep an eye on camp traffic.
Posted: No Public

The downtown lake project isn’t the only controversy eddying around the Tarrant Regional Water District.

By DAN MALONE

Billy James and Carol Hooks say they have spent years watching government equipment and workers stream into the 1,200-acre spread just across the road from their one-bedroom home near Lake Bridgeport. Eighteen-wheelers loaded with backhoes, tractors, brush hogs, and disc planters. Dump trucks brimming with deer corn and firewood. Pickups pulling trailers loaded with ATVs and other gear.

“Everything they have to bring in, they pass my property to do so,” Hooks says of the vehicles rumbling down the dry gravel road in front of her home in rural Jack County, some 70 miles northwest of Fort Worth. “It looks like a traffic jam,’’ she says. Then her husband chimes in: “If you can see if for the dust.’’

Dust clouds these days aren’t the only thing in the air around Lake Bridgeport and other stretches of the Trinity River. Questions are being raised about how the Tarrant Regional Water District is spending the public’s money — whether it’s on the hunting camp it maintains for its own employees across the street from Hooks and James or on the mammoth lake project it’s pushing for downtown Fort Worth.

The water board, as most people call it, has been a low-profile agency for most of the 80 years it’s been around, taking care of four dams and the lakes behind them, selling water to local cities and towns, looking out for flood concerns, and choosing its leaders in elections that often generate anemic turnout. But from time to time, especially when one of the agency’s construction projects requires the taking of private property from those who don’t want to sell, people start getting more curious — and critical — about how the district operates.

Now seems to be one of those times. The massive Trinity River Vision project is set to reshape a huge swath of land just north and west of downtown, and different groups inside and outside of Fort Worth are asking questions — about who the project really benefits, how the agency operates, and just what voters have to say about it all.

Environmentalists say the agency needs to operate with greater transparency. Fort Worth business owners who may lose their land complain that the Trinity River Vision project has less to do with flood control than it does with private economic development. Landowners question the district’s use of public land and money for a hunting camp and retreat that isn’t open to the public.

“Even if it’s only $100 [spent on a private hunting camp], it’s wrong,” said Butch Stoff, who also owns land adjacent to the district’s property in Jack County. “This whole thing is wrong, and it’s been wrong for years.’’

Jerome Collins works at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and is executive director of Central Texas Trail Tamers, a volunteer group that works to make public lands accessible. He said agencies like the water board should make sure their public lands are just that — public. “For them to have a piece of public land that’s not accessible to the public is a little irritating,’’ he said. “That’s just not right.’’

Ken Kramer, the director of the Lone Star chapter, said the district should inform the public about how it is using the land.

“If they are using the property primarily for their employees and their employees’ friends, and they are spending any of their money on maintenance or improvements, then that ... should be made public,’’ he said. “Their activities need to be open to the public. Decisions need to be made in the public eye.’’

District officials say the camp’s operation is legal, costs the public little, and is nothing more than a perk for working for the water board. “It’s an employee benefit,’’ says Jim Oliver, the district’s general manager, “It’s like your health insurance.”

“It’s there for the recreational use of our employees,’’ says Board President Victor Henderson. “I think it’s a good thing.”

Property owners near downtown Fort Worth are worried that their businesses will be seized by the water district through its expanded powers of eminent domain. In Jack County, though, the concern is the opposite. Landowners say the district is using public property — land, equipment ,and money — for the private benefit of its employees and their families and friends.

“They think they pretty much own things out here,” Hooks said. “It’s not their land. It belongs to the public, and they’ve viewed it for years as private property.”

People who have lived in this remote area of Jack County say the water district property known as the Bridgeport Camp was once open for hunting and fishing to anyone. Today, the land, which locals estimate is worth close to $2 million, is fenced, locked, and adorned with a variety of signs threatening prosecution to would-be trespassers.

Oliver, who has managed the district since the mid-1980s, said the camp was around before he came on board. He described it as little more than “an old construction trailer scabbed onto a bunk- house.” He said the district, which operates on a $60 million annual budget, spends no more than $2,000 or $3,000 a year on the camp.

“If we were spending more than a couple of thousand dollars a year, I could see your concern,” Oliver said. But “it’s nothing in a $60 million budget.’’

The district’s own records, obtained by Fort Worth Weekly under the Texas open records act, paint a more complicated and incomplete picture. Oliver says the district’s accounting system cannot identify how much money was spent on the camp before March 2005, when a new system was put into place. The records, Oliver said, “aren’t broken down that finely.”

And the records that are available for the period since March show that the district spent several times what Oliver estimated. Between March 1, 2005, and Jan. 3, 2006, for example, work orders and receipts show the district spent at least $5,000 for mowing, plumbing and heating, air conditioning repairs, and general maintenance. Electric bills for 2005 ran another $2,100, bringing the total to more than $7,100.

Oliver stuck by his estimate of camp expenses, saying that about half the $7,100 was spent on the land itself, for maintenance that would have been done “whether it’s hunted or not.”

More than a dozen work orders, most for unspecified maintenance, list no expenses at all. District officials said those documents reflect potential work projects that were cancelled without any money being spent.

People who live in the area question the district’s account of how much the camp costs the public. They say workers driving vehicles with the water board’s emblem are in and out of the property frequently. Hooks said she sees a water board pickup truck enter the property on most days. “They’re not hauling anything, and they’re not carrying anything,” she said. “I don’t know what they’re over there checking on.’’

She and James said the traffic picks up in the summer as the Fourth of July approaches. As summer nears an end, they said, the heavy equipment with the district emblem begins arriving: tractors to tend to feed plots, mowers, and dump trucks full of deer corn and firewood.

“I don’t know how much money they spent, but it’s a whole lot more than they should have,” Hooks said. “You’d be talking way major bucks if they didn’t have all that equipment and had to pay for the equipment.”

By opening day of deer season, the heavy equipment is mostly gone, and the hunters start pouring in, driving what appear to be privately owned pickups towing flatbed trailers with ATVs, campers, and equipment, the couple said.

District officials dispute Hooks’ accounts of their equipment use on the property. “I would tend to think those reports are greatly exaggerated,” Oliver said. “Why would we haul wood to a place where there are more trees and deadwood than you can shake a stick at?”

Hooks said there’s no mistaking what she’s seen. “After you’ve lived here as long as we have, you can spot their emblem a mile away,’’ she said.

Employees who use the camp are supposed to pay a fee to help maintain the property — but it’s unclear from records the total collected or how that money specifically is spent.

District policy specifies that the camp is open only to full-time employees, retirees, “guests limited to relatives and close friends,” and “parties directly associated with the district but only with the approval of the general manager or assistant general manager.’’

Employees who use the camp are required to sign a hunter’s log and a liability waiver. Many of the logs lack complete dates, making it difficult for an outsider to determine how often the camp is used and who’s using it. Of some 60 people who signed liability waivers in 2005, however, fewer than 10 appeared to be employed by the district. Records also show that game wardens and other law enforcement personnel used the camp about two dozen days in 2005 for firearms qualifications and investigations into illegal fishing and other unspecified activities.

Fees for using the property seem to change each year. In the early 1990s, employees were charged $5. Last year, the fee for using the 12-person cabin for a weekend was $100 during hunting season.

Calendars documenting camp use bear handwritten notations about which campers are paid up. Oliver said the fees are independently managed by employees and the money collected goes to maintenance and upkeep on the property. The district, however, has no records on how those funds are spent, he said.

Nor do any of the documented expenses appear to take into consideration the value of the land itself. Oliver said he doesn’t know what the 1,200-acre spread is worth. He said it was acquired during the Depression and described it as surplus property.

People in the area say other properties are selling for $1,500 to $5,000 an acre. Whatever this land might eventually sell for — and Oliver said the district may sell it one day when values increase — a bottom-dollar appraisal would place it close to $2 million.

Besides the Bridgeport camp, Oliver said, the district also allows its employees to hunt on a “couple of thousand acres” below the Richland-Chambers reservoir that the district operates. The facilities there, he said, are even more primitive — “an old barn, just a roof.’’

He said the district has no plans to let the public hunt on its property. The cost to operate the property for public use would skyrocket, he said. “If we open the land to the public, we’d have to police it,” he said. “Then you’d really have to regulate it.”

The water district was created in the mid-1920s, after floodwaters burst through the levees along the Trinity River in Fort Worth. In addition to Lake Bridgeport and the Richland-Chambers reservoir, the district also built Eagle Mountain and Cedar Creek lakes. The district uses a network of pipelines to move water, which it sells wholesale to Fort Worth, Arlington, and other local entities along the lakes.

In addition to charging the cities for the water, the district imposes a modest tax on those who live within its boundaries. In 2004, the rate was 2 cents per $100 of value. And it’s governed by an elected five-person board. Two positions are up for election this May.

For much of its existence, the water board has received little outside scrutiny. Its elections for the most part have been more like coronations than bare-knuckles contests. At least through the early 1980s, no incumbent water board member was ever defeated in a re-election bid, an astonishing political feat apparently made possible by well-timed resignations and oddly scheduled elections.

When an existing board member grew weary of service, he (and until recently all were men) would typically quit before the term was over, allowing the remaining directors to appoint a replacement who could then run for election as an incumbent. Water board elections were often held on days when public interest and turnout was light. In the late 1970s, for example, one election drew fewer than 300 voters.

But district officials say those days are long gone. In recent years, at least three board members have been elected without first having been appointed. And at least one incumbent has been defeated in a recent election. That was in 2004, when businesswoman Gina Puente-Brancato, the only woman and Hispanic to serve on the board, was defeated by retired engineer Jack Stevens. Puente-Brancato had been appointed to the board a year earlier to fill a vacancy created by a resignation. After she was defeated, she was again appointed to fill another vacancy. Her position and the position held by the late George Shannon, who died last year after more than two decades on the board, are on the May 13 ballot.

Unlike in most other political contests, water board candidates don’t have to receive a majority vote to win. If two seats are on the ballot, as they are this year, and 10 candidates run, the top two vote-getters are elected even if they don’t garner a majority of the votes between them.

What’s more, even if they did know when elections were being held, only a fraction of the residents served — or affected — by the agency are eligible to vote for the people who oversee it. The district sells water in a 10-county area with 1.6 million people, but district officials estimate that only about 300,000 registered voters live in the district and can vote for the board.

Until recently, it looked as if this year’s election might be a high-profile referendum on Trinity River Vision, the controversial and ambitious plan to build a lake near downtown Fort Worth, a plan that has many area business owners on edge. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently approved the $435 million plan, which has the backing of U.S. Rep. Kay Granger and most Fort Worth business and civic leaders. The project has become one of the most sacred cows in Fort Worth’s development corral, with support from virtually everyone except the property owners who fear they’ll lose their land and a few others who object to spending public money on private economic development projects.

Landowners on and around the lake site are concerned that the water board may use newly expanded powers of eminent domain to condemn their property not only for the lake itself, but for economic development of nearby properties that will, theoretically, become much more valuable once the lake is built. District officials, however, say those fears are misplaced.

“We’re not going to condemn any land for economic development,” said district spokeswoman Julie Wilson.

Thus far, only two persons have filed to run for the water board — former Fort Worth City Council member Clyde Picht and real estate professional J.R. Kimball. Kimball, who describes himself as a property rights advocate, said he supports the Trinity Vision proposal but would oppose any condemnation of private land for economic development.

Picht, who opposes using public money for private economic development, believes that money the district might spend on such projects should be used instead to lower water rates or acquire additional sources of water for future use.

“There are probably some people around town who would fear that my being on the water board might jeopardize the Trinity Uptown,” he said.

Picht’s candidacy came into question last week, however, after he received a letter from the district informing him that his home, although it is in the city of Fort Worth, is not within the district’s boundaries. A state law change in 1996 excluded land subsequently annexed by the city from being included in district elections. The property on which Picht lives was annexed in 1998.

Picht has asked the Texas secretary of state to determine whether he can seek the office. If he’s not eligible, district officials said he can petition the board to be included in the district. Board president Henderson said the board would review such a petition, but he would need to know more about where Picht lives and how close his home is to the district’s boundaries before making a decision.

“There’s at least a million people who are not eligible to vote,’’ Picht said. “That’s a significant lot of people who can’t vote for them even though they get their water from them.’’

Hooks and James moved to their property on Long Road 12 years ago. Saying it’s remote and hard to get to is a little like saying it’s been dry in Texas lately. Until recently, the road on which they lived had no name. It took them nine years to get a phone line strung to their home, two years to convince the U.S. Postal Service to make deliveries to their mailbox. “We come out here to be left alone,’’ Hooks said.

Her and her husband’s problems with the water board began around the beginning of deer season last year. James, a disabled Vietnam veteran, spends much of his time hunting the woods around his property or fishing on the river, a short drive down another nearby nameless, rough, and dusty road. In November, after having driven the road for years, he found it blocked off. Huge boulders had been moved in, making it impossible for trucks to pass.

“There was a boulder in the road bigger than my truck,’’ Hooks said. “When they started messing around with my husband’s fishing, I got a problem with that. That road down there partly belongs to me, too. They can’t come in here and try to block off a road because they’re the water board. The water board ain’t nothing. That river don’t belong to [them]. I don’t know a whole lot about the law, but I know that ain’t correct.’’

Hooks, apparently, was right about that — and she and James weren’t the only ones steamed. The road and the deer camp are in the district of Jack County Commissioner Joe Paul Nichols. Nichols said his phone rang nonstop after the boulders were dumped on the road.

“I probably got 20 to 25 telephone calls over the situation,” Nichols said. “That’s the most calls I’ve ever got on anything since I’ve been commissioner.’’ He’s been in office seven years but was unaware, until the road was blocked, how many of his constituents relied on it. “I did not have the impression that many people used it,’’ he said.

Though Nichols and County Judge Mitchell Davenport heard plenty of complaints about the blocked road, both said they knew nothing about the lodge.

“I don’t know anything about a deer camp,’’ Nichols said.

“There’s not a lot of population [in the area],” Davenport said. “It’s pretty remote. The [only] people going down there have business down there.’’ Aside from a few ranches, a house, and an oil or gas well here and there, there’s not much in the area but oak trees, thorny black locusts, and an occasional wild hog.

Nichols said the district blocked the road off because of problems with people trespassing on and vandalizing the property. The boulders have since been removed, and the district is now planning to put up a fence to discourage trespassers while maintaining public access to the river, he said.

Barbara and Darrell Blocker’s family has worked their ranch near the Bridgeport Camp longer than the water board has been in Jack County. “Been in the family for 104 years,’’ Mr. Blocker said — and his and his wife’s memories of water board dealings in and around his family’s land stretches back almost as far. “I’m about the only one left who knows anything about it. I’m 79 going on 80,’’ he said. Nearly everyone else whose families had dealings with the board decades ago is dead, he said.

Barbara Blocker said the fence, the locked gates, and no trespassing signs haven’t always ringed the land on which the water board’s lodge is located. “All that land used to be open,’’ she said. “Anyone who wanted to went down there to hunt. It was public.’’

Darrell Blocker remembers how the water board treated his grandfather when officials decided in the 1920s that they needed some of his land for their plans to build Lake Bridgeport. When his grandfather told them he wasn’t interested in selling, they deposited $25 in his banking account and vowed, “We’ll just flood you out.’’

“The big shots with the water board ... just kind of run over people,’’ Blocker said. “They think they can do whatever they want to do.’’

You can reach Dan Malone at danmalone@earthlink.net.


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