|Polk County Enterprise - Local News
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Hydroelectric plant gains land
BY GREG PEAK
LIVINGSTON – The construction of a new 24-megawatt hydroelectric plant took a major step forward Tuesday when the Polk County Commissioners Court voted to lease the old Southland Park property to the company developing the project. Commissioners voted to lease the land below the Lake Livingston Dam to the East Texas Electric Cooperative, Inc. (ETEC) for 99 years for a $2,500 per year fee, a total that can be renegotiated every five years. The fee is designed to pay what the county would collect if the land were on the property tax roll. In addition to a local economic boost, the power plant is expected to generate another benefit for county residents. The expense of operating a recreational park below the dam would be transferred to ETEC, according to Jim Allison, the attorney hired to represent the county. "They've agreed to keep most of the 20 acres open for public recreational use," Allison said. "They will only need a small part of the tract for the hydroelectric plant but they need to control the area around the site as sort of a buffer area." He noted ETEC will use 1.97 acres of the land for the plant and the remainder would be left open for public use. ETEC plans to construct a walking trail, a bird watching platform and information signs about the local plant and animal life in the area. The attorney said the project was first presented to commissioners in June of 2012, adding, "After 18 months its come a long way and we're now ready to move into the construction phase." Allison noted that because a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department grant was originally used to create Southland Park, ETEC is required by the terms of that grant to replace any land that is removed from recreational use. To that end, they are working to acquire 2.77 acres in adjoining land to expand the park area. The attorney explained an estate now owns the land in question and ETEC is having problems locating all the heirs who might own an interest in the property. They have identified three owners but have no idea how many more might be out there. To solve this problem, Allison said they would move forward with a condemnation process in district court under the eminent domain powers of the county. Under this procedure, a price would be set on the property and the known heirs can receive their portion of the price. The remainder of the money would be held in trust to pay any heirs who step forward at a later date. In approving the lease, commissioners also authorized Allison to acquire the additional 2.77 acres and to lease it to ETEC. Pct. 3 Commissioner Milt Purvis abstained from the vote, noting he serves on the board of the Sam Houston Electric Cooperative, which is one of the owners of ETEC. Prior to Tuesday's regular meeting, commissioners held a public hearing on the Southland Park lease and no member of the public came forward to comment either for or against the project. Money for roads In other business during the meeting, Allison updated commissioners on the special Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) grant program to help fund county road improvements. Polk County is eligible for $448,157 under the new program and commissioners wanted more information before giving final approvalAllison noted under the grant, the state would pay for 80 percent of the cost of any approved work performed on any road in the county. However, the state is requiring that to get the money, the county would have to create at least one County Energy Transportation Reinvestment Zone (CETRZ). "The zones don't have to be very large, in fact, we recommend that you make it small," he said. "You can always come back later and enlarge it or create more, but it's difficult to reduce the size once it is established." When an area is designated as a CETRZ, taxes generated by any increase in property values would be earmarked for transportation projects. "For example, if the property in the zone were valued at $1 million when the zone was created, and the next year someone went in and built a large warehouse causing the value to climb to $1.5 million, then any tax revenue you collect off that additional $500,000 can only be spent on transportation projects," he said. Commissioners had previously voiced concern that the dedicated money would have to be turned over to the state but Allison assured them it would remain in Polk County. He noted this is a way for counties to set aside funds for future road and bridge projects but warned that the money would go into a "lock box" and its use would be limited. Allison noted the grant program marks the first time in over 50 years that the state has allocated money for county road construction and legislature "threw in" the CETRZ requirement as a means of encouraging more counties to take advantage of that program. "Money from the grant does not have to be spent in the zone but you have to create at least one zone in order to get the money," he said. Other action During the meeting, commissioners also: • Voted 3-2 to hire Shannon Barron as the county's fire marshal, arson investigator and building inspector. Barron will work 20 hours a week. Commissioners discussed placing the position under the control of Sheriff Kenneth Hammock but it was noted that under state law, the fire marshal's position is an independent office. Pct. 1 Commissioner Bob Willis and Purvis voted against the measure while Judge John Thompson, Pct. 2 Commissioner Ronnie Vincent and Pct. 4 Commissioner Tommy Overstreet voted in favor of it. • Received a report from District Attorney Lee Hon regarding a new state law that went into effect Jan. 1 requiring prosecutors to provide "open file" access of all information they have on a case to defense attorneys. Hon noted that such a policy has been in place in the local DA's office since at least 1996 but said there are potential problems, including providing immediate access to video tapped evidence generated by local law enforcement agencies. While defense attorneys can gain access to the DA's files over the Internet, Hon said the county's computer servers are not large enough to house all of the tapped evidence. The DA said this could slow down the process, especially in misdemeanor cases, which in turn could require that defendants be held longer in jail at the county's expense. • Received a request from the sheriff's department to purchase 11 new vehicles, including one for the county emergency management office. The request was tabled until the next meeting to give commissioners time to study the request. • Received the order from the district court judges naming Margie Ainsworth as the new Polk County auditor, replacing Ray Stelly, who retired in December.