Plans to locate a large water pipeline along Farm-to-Market Road 549 has tempers at a boil for several property owners.

Most are not necessarily opposed to the project, part of a plan to supply more water to Lake Lavon. They’re upset about how North Texas Municipal Water District has handled things so far.

NTMWD is asking for a 50-foot permanent easement and a 70-foot temporary construction easement to place an 84-inch pipeline on the east side of the farm road as part of its East Fork Reuse Project. Property owners say the district has been largely uncommunicative and its offers for the land are too low.

“They’ve told me twice they don’t need my help building their pipe,” developer Harold Chenault said during a recent meeting of property owners. “They see the end. You all are just collateral damage.”

The work will affect about 35 property owners between FM 552 and Interstate 30, including removal of two houses, Chenault said.

Sheri Fowler said her main concern has been a lack of communication. The letter she received was vague and offered little information about the project, she said.

“The letter I got didn’t even tell me what kind of pipe,” she said. “There’s been an incredible air of secrecy. Everything that should be open record has been denied.”

There have been presentations before the Rockwall City Council and county Commissioners Court, NTMWD Deputy Director David Stephens noted.

“That’s hard for me to believe they feel that way,” Stephens said. “There’s nothing secretive or clandestine about this project.”

Property owners said the district has offered little communication outside those meetings.

Kevin Smith, an attorney, filed an open records request for a list of several documents related to the project, including engineer’s cost reports, a list of affected property owners and materials used to determine project costs. NTMWD denied most of the list. When the Texas attorney general’s office said some of the materials must be released under the Texas Public Information Act, the water district filed a suit seeking to keep the documents private.

In the East Fork Reuse Project, water will be pumped from the Trinity River’s East Fork near Crandall into 1,840 acres of manmade wetlands. As the water passes through, aquatic plants “polish” the water in a natural process that removes about 95 percent of the sediment, 80 percent of the nitrogen and 65 percent of the phosphorus. The cleansed water is then piped more than 40 miles to the north end of Lavon Lake and blended with other raw water sources that include Lavon Lake, Lake Chapman and Lake Texoma.

“We’re going to need water here,” Chenault said. “We can’t keep building lakes. I’m not against the idea of this.”

Fowler said she understands the need for water, but there are more logical routes available. Some suggested placing it on the other side of FM 549, which has a creek and undeveloped floodplain.

The Corps of Engineers won’t allow a construction project within a flood plain, Stephens said.

“No public entity is going to build a water transmission line in a floodplain where you can’t get to it if it rains,” he said. “That’s an unrealistic approach.”

Placing the pipeline outside the floodplain would wind up costing the public even more because the easement would separate property owners from the creek, which would require more compensation, he said.

Chenault said the district told him it would cost about $2.5 million more to reroute the pipeline across the highway.

“I think they’re hokey numbers. I think they’re just trying to shut me up,” he said.

The project has an estimated price tag of $246 million, which is less than the cost of a new treatment plant. Work includes excavation, growing plants and building a pump station to take the water out of the river.

According to a draft environmental assessment from the Corps of Engineers, the East Fork Reuse Project is the only supply option that can be implemented in time to allow NTMWD to meet 2008 water demands.

“They don’t have the swamp built yet,” Dixon Glaze said. “Until they build the swamp, they don’t need the pipeline.”

The 43-mile pipe crosses more than 220 properties. Landowners can build driveways, parking lots and roads over the pipe, but structures are prohibited.

Chuck Nuytten has a mail order business on FM 549. Accessibility is crucial for his operation, he said, and regular traffic includes large delivery trucks. The proposed easement is about 20 feet from the front door, he said. Nuytten also expressed concerned about his buried power lines and septic system.

“It’s going to make a big mess for us. I’m not in any hurry to start it,” he said.

Fowler said she had asked for someone from the water district to meet with a gathering of landowners to explain NTMWD’s position. She was told the request would be considered, but no subsequent response has been forthcoming.

As a governmental entity, North Texas Municipal Water District has the authority to condemn property under eminent domain.

“Part of what you’re seeing is the game the condemning authority plays, and that is information,” said attorney David Kent, who has handled several eminent domain cases. “If they are able to keep everyone in the dark and they’re able to scare other people, hopefully they can get signatures for three or four or five easements, which builds momentum.”

A property owner does not have to accept an offer even when the property is condemned. If an agreement cannot be reached, the county establishes a panel of three disinterested people to hear the case and establish a “fair” amount. Even that amount can be rejected and a jury trial requested to set the price.

“They probably won’t even send me an offer,” Chenault said. “I’ve already told them I’m going to take them to the mat.”

The property owners’ best chance of influencing the process is to stick together and gain the backing of some political muscle, Kent said.

“If they’re going to do this, the least we can do is get paid,” he said. “This is a big, big affair for a lot of people, and landowners are just an inconvenience.”

NTMWD has acquired more than 400 easements for 20 projects in last three years and less than 10 percent has to condemnation, Stephens said. Some condemnation suits have already been filed in Rockwall.

“Nine times out of ten, if they hire an attorney and an appraiser, when everything’s said and done, they’re going to come out with less money than if they had settled with us,” he said.

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