What's Best for Frankie?
Williamson County wastewater plan yields the familiar odor of Commissioner Limmer
It wasn't long after Sandy and Tracy Vollentine moved into their dream home outside the small rural enclave of Norman's Crossing, south of Hutto in eastern Williamson Co., in late 2003, that a flyer arrived in the mail. It was "called the 'Norman's Crossing Watchdog' newsletter, or something along that line," Sandy Vollentine recently recalled. At the time, the small community was embroiled in a battle to keep a general aviation airport away from the area's sweeping farmland, an issue the newsletter was tracking. But what caught his eye, Vollentine said, was another item, about a "sewer plant [going in] somewhere along Brushy Creek." It wasn't at all specific, but the news made Vollentine nervous; his 1890 home backs up to Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of Brushy Creek, which meanders south through the county, not far from Vollentine's back door. He called a couple of people he knew at the Lower Colorado River Authority, including Jim Clarno, an LCRA utility development manager. Vollentine says Clarno assuaged his fears. "They said, 'That's so far down the road, I wouldn't worry about it,'" he recalls.
And that, Vollentine thought, was that.
So it was until mid-May, when Vollentine got an unexpected e-mail from Sharon Morris, one of several siblings of the Walther family, a prominent area family that owns several hundred acres next to and across FM 1660 from the Vollentines. At that point Vollentine did not know the Walthers personally, he says, but he was stunned by the e-mail: According to the Walthers, not only was the LCRA planning to build a large regional wastewater treatment plant in the area, but they were ready to do it, now, on a 64-acre parcel of Walther family land, now known officially as "Site D," directly across FM 1660 from the Vollentine home. To make matters worse, Vollentine would soon discover that the LCRA's April siting study depicted a plant whose discharge lines would tunnel under 1660, run next to Vollentine's home, and release treated water directly behind it into Cottonwood Creek. LCRA officials have since said that one of the site maps is wrong and that the plant's discharge pipes would bypass Cottonwood, tunneling further to Brushy Creek. For the Vollentines, the effect would be the same. "We'd be surrounded, on three sides, by the plant," Vollentine said. He was horrified: "I thought we'd bought a house that had been built on an Indian burial ground and pissed off the gods."
The Vollentines weren't the only family dismayed by the news. Nor were they the only family for whom the May e-mail was the first they'd heard that development of the Lower Brushy Creek Regional Wastewater Treatment Plant was imminent, and that it was slated for Site D: an exposed parcel of land now dedicated to cotton farming, owned as long as anyone can remember by the Walthers. The Walthers' communiqués also first alerted the Norman family Isaac "Jock" Norman, his wife, Frances, and their kids and grandkids, all of whom live in the small community that bears their family name that Site D was to be chosen for the megaplant, which, with expansion, is eventually slated to treat 16 million gallons of sewage per day. To the Normans and their neighbors, it seemed as though their small close-knit community was doomed.
Particularly puzzling to residents and landowners was why they hadn't heard of this threat sooner especially considering that one of their neighbors is also their elected county official, Williamson Co. Commissioner Frankie Limmer, whose low-slung limestone ranch house sits in a field just behind Isaac Norman's grand, circa 1900 farmhouse.
The residents' initial dismay quickly turned to anger when they read the LCRA's site report: Site D stuck out like a sore thumb. It's the smallest parcel under consideration not even large enough to contain the nearly $100 million plant the LCRA says it plans to build. It's the most exposed to sight and smell, and it sits at the highest elevation of any of the proposed sites, meaning it would likely cost more to build, since sewage would need to be "lifted" (pumped uphill) to reach the plant. On its face, there was no objective reason why Site D would even be on the list.
But the inclusion of Site D wasn't objective at all, argues the Walther family, who say they will fight any attempt to take their land. The only reason Site D was included on the list, charges Jason Collins, an Austin attorney who speaks on behalf of the family he married into, is that Site D is the most economically convenient site for Limmer, their now unusually mum neighbor, who has plans to create a large subdivision on a 548-acre parcel of land just a mile from Site D. In 2004, he and his partners in the deal (including wife Judy) won Taylor City Council approval to create a taxing entity known as Water Control and Improvement District No. 2. "The most shocking part of it all is that [it appears] the only way that 'D' is [a better site] is that it is better for Limmer," says Collins. "That is the only 'objective' factor that supports putting it on our land."
Indeed, the LCRA acknowledges that the addition of Site D to the list of proposed sites was "triggered" by a request for service from WCID No. 2; and it would clearly be cheaper for that project to tie into a plant on nearby Site D than it would be to run pipe all the way to a plant that abuts Brushy Creek on the other side of 1660 especially when sewer piping costs about $500 per foot, notes Collins.
Limmer did not return several phone calls requesting comment for this story, and on Monday his office said he was hunting in South Texas and unavailable for comment. Previously, Limmer has publicly denied engaging in any unethical behavior or trying to push the plant to Site D. "I have had nothing to do with site selection," he told the Statesman in July. Frankly, the Walthers don't believe him and, in fact, they have evidence to suggest Limmer is being less than straightforward about his involvement. Their evidence includes a copy of a voice-mail message left on a neighbor's answering machine by LCRA General Counsel Vic Ramirez that concedes that Limmer was personally involved early on in the selection of Site D as a possible location for the plant.
In short, as time runs out in the fight to save Site D the LCRA is set to present its final site recommendation to Hutto City Council on Sept. 18 the Walthers and their neighbors can't help but wonder who the plant is supposed to serve a rapidly growing region or selected, individual interests?
Pointing Fingers Elsewhere
The one thing the Walther family regrets, Jason Collins says, is that they didn't alert their Norman's Crossing neighbors sooner. The family got its first inkling that something was afoot in the summer of 2004, when the family's now deceased matriarch, Doris, got a call from Limmer, asking if she and her then dying husband, Clarence, might be interested in selling the 64-acre tract (now dubbed "D") for development as a WWTP. According to Collins, Limmer actually "encouraged" Doris to be a willing seller because, he allegedly told her, selling for a WWTP would "improve the value of your remaining land." According to Collins, Doris was furious and told Limmer that if he thought it was such a good deal, he should offer up his own land. In May 2005, shortly after Clarence's death, Collins says, the Walthers' eldest child, Clayton, got a call from LCRA real estate representative Connie Real, asking if the family would be willing to sell. As his mother had before him, Clayton said no. Collins says Real told Clayton that the government wouldn't need the family's permission, should it come to that and could, in fact, seek to take the property under the power of eminent domain.
After a string of tense conversations with Real and LCRA Utility Project Manager Clarno, Collins says, agency representatives told the Walther family in February that the plant was to be located on another larger and densely wooded tract of land directly abutting Brushy Creek, known as Site A owned by willing sellers and the Walther family "no longer needed to worry about" the plant being put on Site D. The Walthers were relieved. "We thought it was all over," Collins says, and the family canned a plan to "alert the Norman's Crossing community" about plans for the Walther tract.
Their relief was short-lived; on May 17, the Walthers received a letter from Real, informing them "of the need to acquire a portion of your property ... for the construction, operation and maintenance of the ... Lower Brushy Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant." The LCRA had "previously contacted you in an effort to acquire" a right to enter the property, Real wrote, but had not received permission. Regardless of whether the Walthers agreed now, she wrote, LCRA employees would begin their survey of the land starting May 22.
LCRA attorney Ramirez told the Statesman that the letter was an unfortunate "mistake" and that "obviously, no decision has [yet] been made" about where the plant would be located. Real's was a "form letter," Ramirez explained. "It wasn't the right letter to go out." But he failed to say what letter she actually meant to send. Collins believes Ramirez's explanation is a fabrication since Real called him at his office the same day the letter went out, reiterating that "the city of Hutto has asked the LCRA to begin efforts to acquire [Site D] for construction of a regional wastewater treatment facility," Collins wrote in a June letter to the Chronicle.
Asked about the disagreement, the LCRA reiterated that Real's letter was sent in error, instead of a correct letter asking "permission for LCRA to go onto [the Walthers'] property to evaluate it." Moreover, LCRA spokeswoman Krista Umscheid told the Chronicle, via e-mail: "The suggestion that Real called Jason Collins to say the city had directed LCRA to begin condemnation is entirely false. In reality, Real called both the Walther family and their real estate attorney, Dan Foster ... to inform them of the error. ... At no time did Real ever say or suggest that the city had directed LCRA to begin condemnation."
Umscheid reiterated that "no decision has been made on a preferred site," by either the LCRA or Hutto City Council, which is tasked with making the final decision on plant location. (The LCRA is set to make its final recommendation to the Hutto council on Sept. 18; the council will evaluate the recommendation and, after a Sept. 25 meeting to gather final public input, will make its final site selection during its Oct. 2 meeting, said Assistant City Manager Joni Clarke.)
The Walther family was again alarmed. In an effort to find relief, Collins called their county commissioner, Frankie Limmer, but Limmer had no relief to offer. Instead, Collins says Limmer explained that during a meeting in his Taylor office on May 15, the LCRA's Clarno told him that the LCRA and the city of Hutto were ready to proceed with Site D. However, when Collins called Clarno to verify what Limmer had said, Collins says, Clarno explained that, yes, he'd met with Limmer, but that it was Limmer who "originally pointed [the LCRA] to Site D as a good location for the plant," Collins wrote.
Apples and Oranges
How anyone would find Site D suitable for a large regional wastewater treatment facility is a mystery, says Collins, standing on the western edge of the site on a hot July morning, the LCRA's April report in his hand, and the vast blue Texas sky above and behind him, rolling unimpeded to the horizon well beyond the fields of cotton and corn not quite ready for harvest. For starters, the 64-acre tract isn't even large enough for the plant the LCRA says it wants to build a fact acknowledged in the agency's April study. "Site D as currently configured does not provide sufficient area to both develop a ... plant and provide a 500-foot buffer between the plant and neighboring sites," it reads. However, the report suggests that "contiguous lands could be purchased" in other words, additional property seized from the Walthers or other landowners in order to fit the footprint. But if more land is needed, then the $937,000 estimated cost to acquire Site D not including the legal costs necessary to fight a condemnation suit in court is artificially deflated, argues Collins, so the site is not, as the LCRA reports, cost-comparable to any of the four other sites under consideration. (The LCRA says it never includes potential condemnation costs in initial site evaluation.) Indeed, Site E, which actually sits on a portion of Limmer land within WCID No. 2, is comparable in size and geography. Yet Site E appears largely left out of any serious consideration.
The site-selection controversy has instead concerned primarily just two of the five tracts, sites A and D, because their striking dissimilarities have caused the Walthers and other residents to question LCRA's site-selection motives. Aside from being too small at 64 acres, Site D is wide open, and, at the highest elevation of any proposed site, it lacks any vegetative barrier and does not abut Lower Brushy Creek, where treated water will be discharged. Moreover, the land sits squarely in the middle of Hutto's desired development corridor, as identified in the city's growth guidance plan.
Site A, by contrast, is a 122-acre tract more than enough room for the plant, a 500-foot buffer, and any additional, future "expansion," notes the LCRA's own report. It's also owned by willing sellers (thus eliminating the cost of a potential condemnation suit), is heavily wooded on three sides, and actually abuts Lower Brushy Creek, meaning less cost to discharge water, says Thomas Mansur, a professional engineer hired by the Walthers with his colleague Bill Hathaway to review the five sites and the LCRA report and to issue their own assessment.
The LCRA report consistently finds sites A and D comparable for example, both sites get the same score for the amount of "vegetative barrier" and for the total cost of development (separated by just 5%). But Mansur and Hathaway see few, if any, similarities. "They're certainly not similar, when you consider their location and current use and vegetation and that kind of thing," says Mansur. For example, the LCRA has not considered the cost of adding at least one additional lift station to pump sewage to Site D's higher elevation. Moreover, Hathaway, a former engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, notes that for a plant at Site D where the LCRA would have to run discharge lines underneath roadway, past the Cottonwood tributary, and through a swath of floodplain all the way to Brushy Creek there is a far greater chance that the agency would have to secure dredge-and-fill permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, as required under the Clean Water Act. That would mean first completing an Environmental Assessment report a far more lengthy and costly process than what Hathaway believes the LCRA would need for Site A. In sum, says Hathaway, "I certainly felt that there were differences [between the sites] of a significant nature that were not pointed out in the LCRA [report] to a significant enough degree."
Umscheid said that the LCRA's two main "siting criteria" are cost and "physical attributes" including "creek proximity" and "vegetative barrier" but, at press time, he had not offered any reason why the obvious differences between sites A and D were not spelled out in the agency study. Asked about the differences in vegetation, Umscheid called that question "a good one" that will be addressed in the agency's official public response, to be ready by Sept. 25.
Limmer Makes the Call
Given the apparent differences between the properties, Sandy Vollentine says it seems clear that something other than engineering prompted the LCRA to consider Site D. "Obviously Site D was put there for a reason other than logistics and the ease of accessibility," he says. "It was there for other reasons." Norman's Crossing namesake, Isaac Norman, the former chief geologist for George Brown's engineering and construction company the company that became Brown & Root (now Halliburton) agrees. "The engineering, logic, and aesthetics all say ... that [the plant] should be on Site A," he says.
The Walthers believe that the only persons who would clearly benefit from a plant being placed on Site D are Frankie Limmer and his partners, who are reportedly planning to develop WCID No. 2 into a subdivision of as many as 1,800 residences. The LCRA report even acknowledges that Site D would be the most economical location for service to the WCID, costing just more than $800,000 for wastewater conveyance, vs. more than $1.3 million if the plant were on Site A. Collins says that he's asked LCRA officials numerous times "if there is some other objective factor [for considering Site D] other than Limmer then just tell me. And they haven't said one thing."
Officially, both the LCRA and Hutto City Manager Ed Broussard have told reporters that Limmer isn't driving the train. Limmer told the Statesman that he did contact the Walthers to inquire about their willingness to sell Site D but that he did so at the request of the LCRA, and he denies putting any pressure on the process. LCRA officials were already "talking about that site," he said, "and I said, 'I know the Walthers very well,'" and would make the call.
Yet Limmer's protestations contradict a recent statement by LCRA attorney Ramirez. In an Aug. 21 voice mail Ramirez left for one of the Walthers' neighbors, Ramirez recalls, "I think that [Site D] came up about a year or a year and a half ago. [Limmer] didn't necessarily push anyone toward [Site D]. ... I think he basically said he knew about Site D, or knew about the Walther family, and said [he thought] they might be interested." To the Walthers, the Ramirez message finally confirmed what they'd suspected all along: Limmer was using the stroke of his elected office to massage the site-selection process in a way that would favor his own development. At press time, Umscheid had not offered any specific comment regarding Ramirez's message but said that "obviously" the LCRA "consults with county commissioners" in this case, Limmer "before putting wastewater treatment plants in their precincts." LCRA asked Limmer for "input about what land would be available for a plant," but, she said, Limmer has "not advocated a particular site and is not involved in the site-selection process."
This isn't the first time it's been alleged that Limmer has tried to use his public office for private profit. In 2003, the Chronicle reported on the numerous development interests Limmer created after assuming public office in 1999 including his 2002 formation of the Magellan Water Co., formed to bring a water pipeline to eastern Williamson Co., from the relatively untapped Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer. Despite complaints that it was improper for Limmer to have such a prominent role in a company that could clearly benefit from his knowledge of county business, the Williamson Co. Attorney's Office signed off on the deal, finding no conflict of interest, in part, according to a letter written by Assistant County Attorney Dale Rye, because Limmer said so. Limmer "assures us," Rye wrote, "that the company will not have any interests that conflict with the interests of county government."
In late July, Limmer's water dealings were again questioned when the Statesman reported on a controversial water deal that the city of Hutto had signed with Heart of Texas Suppliers, in which Limmer is an investor and limited partner, and which is part of the Carrizo-Wilcox pipeline deal. Under the terms of the deal, Hutto ratepayers will be required to pay for 1 million gallons of water per day whether they use it or not. In other words, Hutto customers (who the daily says may see a rate-rise of as much as $500 per year) will be forced to pay for more water than they'll ever be able to use. And that money will help the company build the water pipeline needed to serve future developments such as Frankie Limmer's WCID No. 2. "The city of Hutto focused on what was best for Frankie when it signed an overpriced water contract that now has the city on the verge of a [million-dollar] financial deficit," Clayton Walther said in a prepared speech to the Hutto council on Sept. 9. "Now, Hutto and the LCRA are deciding whether to pay extra for my family's property for a [sewage] plant because it would help ... Limmer's private development. By asking, 'What's best for Frankie Limmer?' the city will make the same mistake all over again, and Hutto ratepayers will pay the price."
Whatever the eventual posture of the LCRA and Limmer, the Walthers hope that the Hutto council stinging from its still-fresh, water-related financial wounds will see through the accumulating sludge and make a sound decision for all of the residents in the city and its extraterritorial jurisdictions. Until recently, Vollentine says, he and his neighbors weren't sure that would happen. In fact, he said, until early August, none of the council members had even bothered to visit the five sites, and City Manager Broussard told Vollentine that the city intended to rely on the LCRA's April study to make the final decision. Council Member Florence Winkler says that's not true, but that it took time to get permission from all of the landowners for the council to get access to the properties.
Council Member Jason Wirth says he's confident the council will do what is right for everyone. "It's a pretty heated discussion," he says. "People are coming from all four corners, saying, 'Don't put this here!' and are trying to push it in one direction or another." He isn't putting his faith in the LCRA report to make the final decision. "My honest opinion? I didn't give a lot of weight to that [report]," he says. "I like to see things for myself; seeing is believing. Some of the sites ... pulled me more than others," he says of the Aug. 10 site visit. "And there were a couple where I thought: Why are these here?"