Friday, October 10, 2014
Lonn Taylor: When private property rights clash with the public good ... Big Bend Sentnel
The Big Bend Sentinel
October 9, 2014
The Rambling Boy
By LONN TAYLOR
When private property rights clash with the public good
When my wife, Dedie, and I ramble over to San Antonio or Austin we always try to time our trip so that we arrive in Junction at lunch time. The attraction there is Cooper’s Bar-B-Que and Grill, located on US 377 just a few hundred feet north of its intersection with Interstate 10. It is an easy turn off the Interstate and if you have your car windows down you can smell the meat cooking on the outdoor open pit before you make the turn. Cooper’s beef brisket is delicious and their sauce is mouth-watering.
Junction is about the size of Marfa, with a population of 2,545, and it is the county seat of Kimble County. The town was laid out in the 1870s at the confluence of the North and South Llano rivers, thus its name. Both rivers run over limestone bottoms there and the water is clear and cool. There is a lovely park with picnic tables under some live oak trees along the river on the east side of town, where the Interstate swoops down from cliffs above the river. A billboard on the Interstate describes Junction as “The Front Porch of West Texas.” Dedie and I always feel that we are halfway home when we get there, even though it is still a long way to Fort Davis. It is a lovely place.
It is also the site of a tragic environmental disaster, one that should be a warning to all Texans. About a thousand feet south of Cooper’s US 377 crosses the Llano on a concrete bridge. Until recently, both banks of the river were lined with live oaks. One on the north bank, estimated to be several hundred years old, was known to local residents as the Heritage Oak. James Bradbury, a rancher killed by Indians in 1869, was said to be buried under it in an unmarked grave. As of last week the oaks, including the Heritage Oak, were gone, bulldozed to make way for an 8-acre Pilot Flying J truck stop. No one bothered to look for Bradbury’s remains before the trees went down.
The property belongs to a Kerrville woman, Janet Meek, who leased it to Pilot Flying J. She told the Junction Eagle that she had a verbal agreement with Flying J to preserve the Heritage Oak but that they disregarded it. She had an attack of lessor’s remorse and camped out under the tree all night in protest, but got out of the way when the bulldozers arrived.
The trees are actually the least of the problem. Local environmentalists point out that the runoff from the truck stop’s 8-acre paved parking lot could pollute the fragile but currently pristine Llano River. Buzz Hull, the co-owner of Cooper’s, says, “This could be the end of the Llano River as we have known it for all of our lives.” Bill Neiman, whose Native American Seeds farm is several miles downstream, says, “We have a very real fear that the river will be harmed and polluted.”
How can this happen in this age of environmental awareness? The answer lies in a combination of short-sighted civic vision and Texans’ obsession with private property rights.
It seems that Junction’s public officials are in favor of the truck stop, which will be outside of the city limits. They see the promised 61 jobs and the thousands of truckers who will stop there overnight as short-term economic benefits that outweigh the possible long-term damage to the river. The city council might have prevented construction by annexing the site and bringing it under the city’s zoning ordinances, but they declined to do that. Now they are trying to persuade Ms. Meek to agree to a voluntary annexation of the site so that the city can collect an estimated $180,000 in sales tax revenues.
The heart of the problem is that no one in Texas can control the use of land that is not within city limits where zoning laws apply. In many states county commissioners have zoning authority and can use it to regulate land use and prevent undesirable construction, but not in Texas, where unlimited property rights are somehow connected with the Alamo, and a rural property owner can do anything he wants to with his property, no matter how disastrous the results may be for future generations.
My sister-in-law in England lives in Cassington, Oxfordshire, an idyllic village of 500 people that is exactly 5 miles from the center of Oxford, a city of 160,000. Cassington is surrounded by green fields and forests. Oxford stops dead at the Woodstock Road Roundabout. Beyond that woods and pastures stretch all the way to Cassington, because that land is strictly zoned for agricultural use. There is no straggle of used-car dealers, motels, and welding shops. Oxford is on one side of the traffic circle, green and pleasant England is on the other.
I have never understood why in Texas zoning laws are good for city mice but not for country mice, especially as we lose more and more of the open land that is necessary to our survival as a species every year, but that is the way it is and there seems to be no way to change it until Texans get tired of seeing our state gobbled up by strip malls and truck stops and march on the state capitol armed with shotguns and pruning hooks.
There is one stop-gap until the revolution comes. Various nonprofit groups have created conservation easements, through which a landowner essentially sells his development rights to the non-profit, which pledges not to use them so that the land will remain forever undeveloped. The Nature Conservancy has done this in the Big Bend, to the benefit of all. Several years ago the state legislature created a program that would let the state get into the game. It is called the Texas Farm and Ranch Lands Conservation Program, and it provides funds through the General Land Office for nonprofit land trusts to use for the purchase of development rights. The only problem is that the legislature neglected to appropriate any money for the fund, so the program is pretty much on the shelf. If you care about Texas, write your legislator and let’s get it dusted off. In the meantime, mourn with me for those trees along the Llano, and for the river itself, and make sure it doesn’t happen where you live.
Lonn Taylor is a historian and writer who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.