Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporter Fort Worth Business Press
The Tarrant Regional Water District board voted 4-1 on Tuesday to exercise its power of eminent domain in order to route a massive pipeline through an East Texas property controlled by Monty Bennett, a wealthy Dallas businessman who is suing the district in an effort to keep the pipeline off the property. The lone dissenting vote came from Mary Kelleher, the only successful challenger to three incumbent board members in a heated 2013 election in which Bennett contributed more than $100,000 to an Austin-based political action committee that in turn provided campaign funding for John Basham, a water board candidate who ran on the same slate with candidates Kelleher and Timothy Nold.
In casting her “no” vote Tuesday, Kelleher said, “I don’t like using eminent domain unless it’s absolutely necessary, and in this case I’m not sure it’s absolutely necessary.” She later added, “Excuse me for not being comfortable with the board and with Mr. Oliver,” a reference to district General Manager Jim Oliver, with whom she has had a contentious working relationship. The board voted 4-1 to employ eminent domain to acquire easements on six property parcels, including the Bennett property, that the district wants for the huge $2.3 billion Integrated Pipeline Project in which the TRWD is partnering with Dallas Water Utilities to boost the volume of water that can be supplied to the Dallas-Fort Worth area from East Texas. Kelleher voted against eminent domain on all six parcels, which are located in Henderson, Navarro and Ellis counties. TRWD Real Property Director Steve Christian said the district had been unable, in negotiations with Bennett, to acquire two parcels totaling 11.6 acres in Henderson County, southeast of Dallas, where Bennett owns a large ranch. The TRWD technically listed the property owner as the Lazy W District No. 1, the name of a municipal utility district associated with Bennett. The parcel was consistently referred to in the board meeting as the Bennett property. Christian said that “in the two years we’ve been negotiating” with Bennett, he “has not been willing to talk to us about anything but getting the easement off his property” by rerouting the pipeline around the desired parcel. Board member Jim Lane, in backing eminent domain to acquire the 11.6 acres, said Bennett made it clear back in 2011 that he would remain opposed to the district securing an easement. Lane, sitting across the board table from Kelleher, told her, “I appreciate your being the loyal opposition…you’re a champion for Mr. Bennett, and that’s OK, but it’s in the best interests” of the public to obtain the easement and move forward on the pipeline project that will buttress future water supplies.
With the board action taken, the TRWD is expected to initiate condemnation proceedings for the 11.6 acres in a court in Henderson County. A judge will then select three special commissioners who will assess how much compensation the district should provide for the parcel. Either side can appeal the decision of the special commissioners. If the TRWD secures the easement, a right-of-way approximately 150 feet wide would be created for the pipeline and excavation undertaken to bury it. The top of the huge pipe, which would be nine feet in diameter, would be about four feet below the surface. TRWD officials said that the pipeline route chosen was the best in terms of cost and minimizing impact on property owners and “structures” such as homes or buildings. Rerouting the project could result in substantial time delays for re-design and significant increases in cost, they said. Jody Puckett, director of Dallas Water Utilities, the partner with TRWD in the Integrated Pipeline Project, told the TRWD board she opposes rerouting the pipeline.
“The route has been vetted…and revetted” from both cost and engineering standpoints, Puckett said. The pipeline project needs to proceed because “we need the water,” she said. Bennett has a lawsuit pending in Tarrant County in which he is attempting to stop the TRWD from running the pipeline through the East Texas property. He contends that the district has operated in a secretive fashion in violation of state open meetings laws, a charge that the TRWD denies. Bennett, according to previous media reports and a Texas Ethics Commission finance report issued in May 2013, contributed more than $100,000 to HillCo Partners, an Austin-based political action committee that gave money to John Basham, one of the unsuccessful challengers to TRWD board incumbents in 2013. Basham’s campaign was coordinated with the campaigns of Kelleher and Timothy Nold, with Kelleher the only challenger winning election to the board. Bennett is chairman and CEO of Ashford Hospitality Trust, a Dallas-based real estate investment trust that owns hotels. Efforts by the Business Press to solicit comments from Bennett, through Ashford and a law firm that has represented him, were unsuccessful.