In The Rough

In its quest for a Municipal golf course, Lake jackson learned a valuable lesson: Never buy land without checking it out first. Unfortunately, the lesson came six years too late.

The city of Lake Jackson loves its trees, especially the gnarled, thick-trunked live oaks bearded with Spanish moss that dominate its landscape. Such an oak is stamped on the city's stationery and adorns a welcoming sign on the outskirts of town. When Alden Dow, architect son of the founder of Dow Chemical, laid out Lake Jackson during World War II for the company's workers, he bent the streets around its massive oaks. This town of 25,000 people an hour's drive south of Houston has been built in a bottomland forest, and its civic leaders are proud of the trees they've saved and the trees they've planted.

They are also proud of the parks they have built amidst those trees. Their Little League ball fields are Norman Rockwell pretty, with bright green infields, well-painted bleachers and outfield walls bearing the advertising of local merchants. Lake Jackson has soccer and football fields and picnic areas, a state-run aquarium and fish hatchery and even a wilderness park, a thickly wooded, 480-acre tract near a double bend of the Brazos River that in the spring teems with migrating songbirds from Central and South America. But one thing Lake Jackson doesn't have is a municipal golf course, even though nothing would be more beautiful than driving a golf ball down a groomed fairway lined with the live oaks that are the city's symbol.

So when the mayor of Lake Jackson set out to build a golf course in 1990, it wasn't surprising that she had lots of local support. It also wasn't surprising that nobody really expected developing the course to be particularly difficult. After all, the city had had little problem creating other such amenities in the past. Lake Jackson is the most flourishing town in Brazoria County. While nearby Freeport, Clute (known for its mosquito festival) and even the county seat of Angleton have languished, Lake Jackson has fattened its city budget with sales taxes from the biggest shopping mall in the region, a mall built by Lake Jackson developers. The city has steadily added attractive brick housing divisions on winding streets named for trees and plants. And through Dow, which has had a lobbyist on its payroll serving as a City Council member for the last few years, Lake Jackson even exerts power in Austin. The town is also home to powerful state senator James E. "Buster" Brown, and its civic leaders are consistently defended by the area's only daily paper, the Brazosport Facts. Lake Jackson is run by a network of corporate executives, developers and politicians who readily interchange roles. It's a town whose leadership is used to getting what it wants.

But building a city-owned golf course has been another matter. Lake Jackson officials have spent six years and a million dollars trying to carve out a golf course from a wetland forest that federal, state and local environmentalists insist ought to be preserved for wildlife. It cost the city five years of work and more than $100,000 worth of environmental studies simply to win a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build its golf course, something that took every bit of political muscle Lake Jackson could muster. A referendum inspired by a small group of the town's environmentalists had to be turned back. The fight has even gone to Washington, with House majority whip Tom DeLay introducing Congressional appropriations amendments to protect the planned golf course from federal interference. At one point the city found a way to thumb its nose at federal wildlife officials who had been opposing the golf course by thwarting the officials' plans to build a wildlife refuge in another part of the county.

The fight for the golf course has taken on an almost obsessive quality, overshadowing every other town matter pretty much since the '90s began. For that matter, the battle has been raised to the level of a national issue, with property rights advocates pointing to Lake Jackson's troubles as an example of a federal government too much in love with regulations, and environmental activists pointing to the same troubles as an example of a city too blinded by the bright lights of development to recognize its own natural wonders.

The truth of the matter may be a little different. While it's true that Lake Jackson ran into an environmental tangle, it's a tangle that's been around for a while, and one that most municipalities have learned to deal with. And while the mayor who originally pushed for the course site has made much of its importance for developing Lake Jackson's future, if it were designed to line the pockets of greedy speculators, it's in an odd place. The spot that could financially benefit many of Lake Jackson's big players is in fact all the way across town.

No, what seems to have played out in Lake Jackson is simply an astonishing case of municipal stubbornness. For close to five decades, Lake Jackson followed the course of a company town, doing pretty much what the people who ran it wanted. And it all worked pretty well. But with the golf course, the town encountered the realities of civic government in the '90s, and didn't like what it found. Though on every front Lake Jackson seems to have been winning battles to build its golf course on the land it purchased for that purpose, the course isn't much closer to completion today than it was six years ago. It's mired in court and subject to yet further federal appeals. It's as if Lake Jackson were fighting something more problematic than environmentalists or government agencies or complicated wetlands regulations. It's as if the city were fighting itself. Every time it has denounced its opposition for being obstinate, secretive, conspiratorial, uncommunicative, vindictive and selfish, it could have been describing its own behavior. Change, Lake Jackson has discovered, can be a bitch.

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