Wetlands Maul?

The Sierra Club got paid off, but a developer's bizarre problems continue

Drivers passing the intersection at Grand Parkway and Interstate 10 near Katy hurtle through without a second look. There's little to see here. The northern side of the freeway is a quiet piece of overgrown land fringed by new housing developments.

On Monday, that was all supposed to change. Developers were lining up high-profile guests for a long-planned groundbreaking ceremony. The occasional birdcalls were to be replaced by the roar of bulldozers, and the booming economy would roll along to add another sprawling retail center, dubbed Houston Premium Outlets mall.

But that never happened. A lawsuit challenging key elements of the permit process had been filed, and the developers, yet again, put the silver shovels and hardhats back on the shelf.

This is just the latest skirmish in a long-running battle over the fate of this property, the stage of an intense intrigue in which a once-secret pact with an environmental group has intertwined with dark accusations of a clandestine opposition to form a plot with all of the twists and turns of a Raymond Chandler detective novel.

And the last chapter has yet to be written.
The key players include leaders of the Sierra Club, which formed a secret pact with developers to stand aside from the project while playing a shell game with $350,000 still under its control. There's an unidentified agitator in the wings fighting the mall, who some say is a paid agent provocateur. There's a secretly commissioned archaeologist, an elderly environmentalist with very expensive attorneys paid by anonymous backers and a group of puzzled observers who say this is one development for the record books.

The highlights:
After first opening a Pandora's box of ominous warnings about damaging this section of the Katy Prairie wetlands, members of the Sierra Club struck a deal with the mall developers. The organization's original stance on the pact was contained in a five-line press release hurriedly typed up in its attorney's office allowing that the club had reached an agreement with the developers, Westside Ventures, that would allow preservation work on the Katy Prairie wetlands through a "third-party trustee." But after several days of stonewalling the Houston Press on details, club members say now that the money -- $350,000 -- was shuffled into a newly created trust fund run by the club's attorney, but under the direction of the organization's board.

Later on, say club leaders, they'll use the money to either buy wetlands and donate the property to a closely connected environmental group, or just give the money to that environmental group itself.

Initial Sierra Club opposition was only one of several roadblocks thrown in the path of would-be mall developers hustling to compete with another huge mall project now under construction on a site just two miles west on I-10. An anonymous opponent to Premium Outlets mall commissioned a 32-page study of the land's potential archaeological value. The plot thickened again when one homeowners' group in the area dropped its challenge to the mall after discovering they were being spurred into action not by a concerned resident but by what they believe to be a paid operative working the area to stir up opposition.

Even after all that opposition had been calmed, and all the right permits obtained, a feisty, 74-year-old environmentalist with high-priced legal help jumped into the fray at the 11th hour. She seeks an injunction against construction and touts her Sierra Club membership, even as the group angrily disavows any involvement and darkly questions the forces marshaled behind her.

"There's some bizarre shit going on here," says Bill Stransky, wetlands chair of the Sierra Club. "All I can say is, it's very weird."

Developers pushing ever westward to keep up with the outward migration of new housing complexes recently fell in love with the area -- and it is not hard to see why. About 20 miles to the west of downtown, it offers a burgeoning middle-class group of customers in search of retail stores close to their new homes. What better place to build a megamall or two?

Until recently, though, developers with their blueprints in hand hit a nasty snag: the marshy territory known as the Katy Prairie wetlands, home to migrating birds and dear to the hearts of area conservationists.

One of those developers is Westside Ventures, an arm of Houston's Interfin Corporation, which was selling land to one of the biggest mall builders in the United States. This land falls under the direction of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, no friends of the Sierra Club. Stransky pungently sums up the club's attitude about the corps in a few words: "I think they're the equivalent of the anti-Christ when it comes to environmental protection."

In that environment, Stransky says the Sierra Club was forced to wage war against the development -- even though the group intended to compromise for a cash settlement that would allow a closely linked organization the chance to buy and preserve a valuable piece of wetlands.

As for the intersection of Grand Parkway and I-10, well, that was a sacrifice they were willing to make.

"Not all wetlands are created equal," says Stransky. The mall was being built on a piece of the Katy Prairie already surrounded by residential developments. It makes a lot more sense to buy more ecologically important land with money provided by the developers.

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