Metropolis: Wednesday, May 03, 2006
Left to right, candidates Clyde Picht, Gina Puente-Brancato, Tracey Smith, and Mike Utt field questions at a citizen forum.
High Tide for the Water Board

The lakes may be low, but there’s no shortage of candidates — or voters.


As elections go, it’s a strange one. The outcome could redefine Fort Worth as much as anything in its history — Sundance Square, downtown’s renaissance, the Cultural District or the Stockyards.

And yet, the rules governing this contest are as screwy as a pig’s tail. It doesn’t take a majority to win. Being a registered voter in the city of Fort Worth doesn’t always mean you can cast a ballot. Candidates can be barred from voting. And some say no one gets to vote on what’s really at stake.

Welcome to the May 13 contest for the board of the Tarrant Regional Water District, the heretofore low-profile agency that’s supposed to make sure Fort Worth and area cites have enough water. What’s awakened this contest from electoral somnolence is a $450 million plan to build a lake just north of downtown, making water frontage as integral to central-city Fort Worth as the River Walk is to San Antonio. Opponents, however, are concerned about the cost of the redevelopment, who will pay for it, and the possible condemnation of private property around the lake.

With the backing of most of the city’s power brokers, the project has a whiff of inevitability. Some have even given Trinity Uptown, as the lake project is officially known, a nod-to-power nickname — “Lake Granger” after its cheerleader-in-chief, U.S. Rep. Kay Granger.

As if the election itself wasn’t strange enough, the 13 candidates vying for the board’s two open positions are about as diverse as creatures in a sale barn: an antiquarian book-seller, a land surveyor, a former television reporter, an antique lighting dealer, a retired theology professor, an environmental consultant, a well-known name from an iconic Fort Worth business, and two former city council members often at odds with each other. It’s a good thing most of the candidates have day jobs: Board members are paid a maximum of $7,200 a year, depending on how many days they work.

Many candidates credit the board with doing a good job of taking care of its primary business — providing water to the area through a network of reservoirs and pipelines constructed over the last 80 years. But they are almost evenly split on Trinity Uptown. (All but one of the candidates discussed their campaigns with Fort Worth Weekly; only Marty Leonard, daughter of a founder of the Leonard Brothers Department Store, did not.)

Some say the lake plan itself should be put to a vote so the public, and not the city’s power brokers, can decide whether to proceed. Others question whether the district should be operating a deer camp — with public money on public land near Lake Bridgeport — that the public can’t use.

Gina Puente-Brancato, the lone incumbent who’s running, said she’s not sure the opponents of Trinity Uptown would be successful in derailing the project even if they win both seats. “The train is in motion,” she said. And because the project is a collaboration involving the district, the city, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, it’s not something that can easily be placed on a ballot.

“Everyone is asking, ‘Can the district put it up for a vote?’ It’s not a Tarrant Regional Water District decision,” she said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there.”

Former councilman Jim Lane wants to make sure Fort Worth has adequate water to support growth and projects like Alliance Airport and Texas Motor Speedway. Providing an adequate water supply “is the only way we can continue to have these kinds of massive developments,” he said.

Marty Martinez, a retired manager for a defense contractor, grew up in San Antonio and said he’d like to see Fort Worth develop the lake into something like the River Walk in his hometown — an inviting spot for tourists and locals alike.

J.R. Kimball, a real estate broker, agrees that the project would be a boon to downtown: “I can’t think of any city in the country that wouldn’t like to have 800 acres of land that close to the central business district to develop,” he said. Both he and Lane said concerns that the district is going to condemn large tracts of privately held land for economic development around the lake are baseless.

But landscape architect Tom Waltz said any business displaced by the project should be given “much care and preferential treatment” when the lakeside properties are developed. He also said he would encourage water conservation measures to make sure adequate water is available for future generations.

Trinity Uptown supporters estimate the project will cost about $450 million — and they’re counting on Congress to come up with about half of that. Opponents say the final bill could be closer to $1 billion and that Fort Worth taxpayers could get stuck with it.

If owners of property needed for the lake can’t agree with the district on sales prices, the district has the power to take the land through condemnation proceedings. And newly expanded powers that permit the district to condemn private property for economic development have some worried that condemned properties might be privately redeveloped by third parties.

Trinity Uptown “will displace over 80 businesses with a buyout or by eminent domain,” said Clyde Picht, the other former city councilman in the race. “Some will move. Some will close. Some are woman- and minority-owned, and industrial jobs will be lost. For what? So some developer can come in and make a killing, buying low and selling high? So a dozen restaurants can open by the lake and employ minorities at the lowest wage scale?”

Though Picht lives in Fort Worth, he wasn’t initially eligible to run for a seat on the water board. People who live in portions of the city annexed after 1996 are not within district boundaries and are not eligible to vote.

Candidates for office also must own land within the district. Picht, who lives on property annexed in 1998 and hence outside the district’s boundaries, solved his eligibility problem by buying (for a price he won’t disclose) a small plot of land from a friend who lives within the district. He remains, however, unable to vote in the election — even for himself.

Ben Boothe, an environmental consultant, is worried that the current drought may mark the beginning of an era of worldwide water shortages caused by global warming. If that’s the case, he said, the last thing the water board should be doing is “allocating resources for a reflecting pond” for a few rich businessmen downtown.

Tracey Smith, a former journalist, calls Trinity Uptown “a beautiful concept” but one that should have been submitted to voters. He believes backers of the project recalled an earlier massive scheme — nixed by voters — to remake the river into a navigable canal stretching from Dallas to the Gulf of Mexico. Thus, he thinks, they decided early on that the only way to achieve their goal this time was to make sure the project never went before the public for a vote.

Land surveyor Timothy Nold objects to the water board seizing private lands for economic development projects. If opponents of the project are able to win both seats, he said, the election will be “a shot across the bow of the water board.”

Howard Stone, a retired TCU theology professor and psychologist, fears the cost of the project will soar and that federal funds everyone is counting on won’t materialize.

“People like the concept of having something like [the River Walk] in San Antonio but aren’t prepared to pay the bill,” he said.

Bookseller Mike Utt fears that Uptown could become Fort Worth’s own Superconducting Supercollider, the gargantuan underground project near Waxahachie that the federal government spent millions of dollars on then abandoned. “Everybody says, “It ‘s [Trinity Uptown is] going to happen. You can’t stop it’,” Utt said. “I don’t want a $100 million ditch running through the city of Fort Worth. Inflation is going to push this way up over $1 billion. Who’s going to eat the rest of that? You and I as taxpayers.”

Former General Services Administration executive Gary Alexander is similarly concerned that the project will wind up in a losing competition for federal funds with efforts to rebuild New Orleans and other cites devastated by last year’s hurricane. “The federal money is not assured,’’ he said. “It has to be appropriated. ... Other flood control projects are probably more important than building a lake.”

Utt, Stone, and Picht also object to the water board using public lands and funds to operate its employee hunting camp.

“I can’t imagine there are many voters in Fort Worth who would say that’s appropriate,’’ Stone said. Utt said the district should sell the land or “build it into a park system so everyone can use it.”

Water board elections have often been held on days when voters had no other reason to go to the polls and turnout has been anemic. This year, however, the election is being held jointly with a county bond proposal, and city council and school board elections across the county. Early voting began Monday, and officials are bracing for a turnout that one candidate predicted may be may be as large as eight times the usual vote.

Fort Worth Weekly editor Gayle Reaves contributed to this report.

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