By JIM STREET
ALPINE – A three-member special commission this week awarded Tom and Val Beard of Alpine $625,000 that gives Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) the right to build a portion of the Trans-Pecos Pipeline on the Beard’s Leoncita Ranch. The award was more than 16 times the amount originally offered by ETP has said it plans to appeal similar cases.
Meanwhile, pipeline construction has commenced, as flatbed tractor trailer rigs carrying large dirt-moving equipment are appearing on area highways.
The special court commissioners were chair Steve Houston, Esther Howard, and Joe Torres. The pipeline company had initially offered $38,200 for a five-mile right of way across the 76,155-acre Leoncita in north Brewster County near the Pecos County line.
The 148-mile, 42-inch pipeline will carry natural gas from the Waha oil and gas collection hub near Coyanosa to the Rio Grande near Presidio where it will cross under the river to meet with a Mexican pipeline.
There, it will carry the fuel into the Mexican interior to convert coal-fired electricity generating plants, other industrial uses, and shipment to Aisa at a liquified natural gas facility on the drawing board at the Pacific Coast port of Topolobampo in the state of Sinaloa.
Work is already underway on the right of way across northern Brewster County. Before the hearing, Val Beard told the Big Bend Sentinel Marfa and the Presidio International that the work had come right to their property line.
“They have not dug on our property yet,” she said. “They came right up to the property line but did not cross it.”
ETP attorney Tom Zabel of Houston and Chris Sandifer of Alpine put on only one witness in the hearing, which was tried Monday in a too-small meeting room at the Hampton Inn. Extra chairs had to be crowded into the room and still some spectators had to stand in the hall outside the room.
Real estate appraiser John Harris of Palestine said he allowed for some reduction in the value of the Beard’s land after the pipeline crosses it in determining the offer, even though he found little evidence that pipelines generally reduced property values.
He said finding the impact of pipelines in West Texas was difficult, both because of the wide variety of land values and because there are only a few pipelines and none as big as 42-inch diameter lines.
Comparing properties in south and east Texas, including some with one or more 42-inch lines, he said, he found “no significant difference” between properties with and without pipelines.
“People bought land for the other features,” he said. “Would they rather not have the pipeline? Probably. But they bought because of the attraction of the property overall.”
Attorneys Roy Brandys and Nick Laurent of Barron Adler of Austin and Kirk Meade of Alpine represented the Beards. Witnesses included Val Beard, landscape architect Sean Compton, real estate broker James King, archeologist David Keller, historian Travis Roberts of Marathon and appraiser David Bolton.
“If you were out there [at Leoncita] at 7:25 this morning you could look at the beautiful sunrise,” Brandys said. “No wonder people want to live here.”
He said the ranch is in the pristine beauty of the Big Bend region and would be permanently impacted by a 125-foot-wide scar. He produced a map indicating the scar would be visible on the property from as much as eight miles away.
Harris confirmed that land “scarred” by the construction will still be visible for some time after construction is finished.
Leoncita was once a part of the Kokernot 06 Ranch. It was purchased in 1913 and named for Leoncita Spring.
Brandys said the eminent domain laws say the property owner must be paid “fair market value” for the land taken for a public use. He and Harris agreed that means what a willing buyer will pay and a willing seller will accept.
But Brandys said that assumes the seller wants to sell.
He said the Beards will lose the right to control their property and the contract allows the pipeline company to come onto the easement any time they want.
Harris said the access is limited to the right of way and pipeline crews will “not be there 24/7.”
“But the Beards will have no say,” Brandys countered.
He said the contract also allows ETP to change the size of the pipe and other specifications, but Harris said that was unlikely.
“We thought Enron was a good company,” Brandys said. “How did that work out?”
The Houston energy behemoth became the nation’s largest bankruptcy in 2002 in a scandal that also brought down the accounting firm of Arthur Anderson and resulted in the Surbanes Oxley Act regulating public companies and accounting firms.
ETP, like they’ve done in all other condemnation hearings against landowners in Pecos, Brewster, and Presidio counties along the pipeline route, will appeal the Beard ruling, and the rulings have heavily favored the landowners.
More than 40 landowners have been affected by the unprecedented construction project in Far West Texas. A few landowners worked agreements with ETP, but the pipeline company invoked their dubious right of eminent domain to file condemnation proceedings on the others.
North of Alpine, the pipeline right of way can now be seen as it crosses the Fort Davis highway north of the airport and heads west toward Sunny Glen Road (FM 1703).
Steve Belardo, who lives on the McElroy Ranch north of Alpine complained again this week to the Sentinel/International that the pipeline will be a Class III line to a quarter mile south of his house where it reverts to Class I.
Class III pipe is .864-inch-thick steel buried 10 feet underground. Class I pipe has a .6-inch-thick shell buried just four feet below the surface.
The Alpine City Council prevailed on ETP to use the Class III specifications within the city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, which extends one mile beyond the city limit. That line crosses the right of way near Belardo’s home and the ETJ includes the FM 1703 crossing.
Belardo has said the thicker, deeper-buried pipe should have started before the McElroy subdivision because as many as 50 homes could be constructed there one day. He said he has appealed both to County Judge Eleazar Cano and County Commissioner Luc Novovitch to require that ETP extend the Class III to the pipeline yard about a mile to the north or at least beyond the McElroy residential development.
But they gave him no encouragement, he said this week.
“They talked like they worked for ETP,” he said. “Whose side are they on?”