Down the Drain

Encroaching development and bureaucratic inertia are jeopardizing Sheldon Reservoir, one of east Harris County's last natural outposts

"I don't know what he's talking about," countered Anderson. "We're not holding anything up in my office."

Later, Anderson amended his comment to say that the point was moot, since he'd called METRO and cleared the way for the work to begin. Asked who had originally called the work to a halt, Anderson wouldn't say. Nor would Penaloza honor a request to ask his "project people" to finger the culprit. "I'm satisfied from my end," he said.

Deflecting questions as well as water is relatively easy when layers of bureaucracy serve as a shield. And with Sheldon, a tortuous walk through the many jurisdictions that have some responsibility over West Lake Houston Parkway provides the perfect illustration of just how thick those layers are (though a look at the Beltway, ditch and subdivision would serve just as well).

METRO is managing the construction of the Parkway, though the county applied for the wetlands permit from the Corps of Engineers. Why split the responsibility instead of having METRO handle the whole affair? No particular reason, says Dan Penaloza. "It's just a matter of the two agencies trying to get something done."

McCord paid for Pate to design his section of METRO's road, which METRO, the county and Corps of Engineers approved. If water is indeed being diverted out of the watershed, the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission should have something to say about it. The city's Planning and Development Department approves all subdivision plans, including roadways. TxDOT, the city Public Works and Engineering Department and the Harris County Flood Control District also are peripherally involved.

Now that problems have emerged, all the fingers are pointing in different directions. "As far as the design and engineering of West Lake Houston Parkway, we as developers don't really have a lot of control over that," says Charles Leyendecker of McCord Development Communities.

"METRO is managing the project," says county engineer Terry Anderson. "They have been handling this all during construction."

"Being that the permit is with the county and the Corps," says METRO's Dan Penaloza, "we are acting for the county. We're just a facilitator."

Says Pate's Jeff Ross: "Everybody has some level of involvement. [But the county is] really the authority to speak on this issue."

Under the circumstances, absolution is simply the final, inevitable step.
"This is not anything wrong that anybody's done," says Anderson curtly. "There's no controversy that I know of."

If this welter of confusion leaves Sheldon and its patrons the big losers, one player stands to come out ahead: Rick McCord, whose 1,500 acres, once largely marshy and undevelopable, are considerably drier today. McCord, who owns a slew of choice commercial properties in Bellaire and downtown, would not return phone calls from the Press. But Charles Leyendecker of McCord Development Communities says that Sheldon will be an asset to the subdivision and that McCord is more than willing to contribute to a resolution. "We remain ready and able to discuss options," Leyendecker says.

McCord's actions over the years, however, belie Leyendecker's words. Several years ago, he dug a series of ditches in the western portion of his land, ostensibly to allow loggers to harvest trees in the area. The ditches had an added benefit -- they dewatered the property.

McCord's fancy for ditch digging has been a constant source of concern. A 1993 inspection by David Hankla of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service prompted a sharp letter to the Corps of Engineers over a pair of newly constructed ditches in the vicinity of West Lake Houston Parkway. "Both are absolutely contrary to specific promises and project design from the permittee to prevent this from happening," Hankla wrote.

Such activity led Linton Ardoin of the Parks and Wildlife Department to conclude that McCord had other than the public interest at heart. "His efforts are geared to draining and drying wetlands along the bayou," Ardoin wrote to department executive director Andy Sansom in 1994, "in the hopes of developing them as residential or commercial real estate."

That would have been a tricky proposition until recently. TPWD biologist Andy Sipocz, who has conducted extensive field studies of the property over a period of years, estimates that the McCord tract consisted of about 60 percent wetlands. Engineering consultant Tony Vasquez, who worked on West Lake Houston Parkway and now teaches in Puerto Rico, puts the figure closer to 75 percent. Regardless of the exact figure, most people who looked at the area concluded that water was the dominant characteristic. For that reason, as a 1991 county study noted, "It is not a location which is suited nor amenable to development."

McCord, however, refuses to concede that his property was or is a wetlands zone. "We have had studies completed by the most respected authorities in the environmental professions that are contrary to this claim," he wrote in a letter rebutting various Sierra Club arguments against the parkway.

Asked who these "most respected authorities" were and if they put their findings on paper, Charles Leyendecker hedges. "I'm not denying there's a lot of wetlands on the property," he says. "I'm just saying there's not wetlands where we're [currently] doing the work."

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