In The Rough
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.
No such problems seemed to be on the horizon in 1990, when then Lake Jackson mayor Doris Williams attempted to lead her town into the golf course business. Williams, who had served on Lake Jackson's five-member City Council since 1981, was elected mayor in 1988, and might still be in office defending the golf course if it weren't for term limits.
Lake Jackson's leaders had been thinking about a golf course since a recreation survey done in 1982 indicated that the city's residents wanted one, although it ranked behind such amenities as youth soccer fields and a replacement of the town's 1948-era swimming pool in order of importance. But by the end of the '80s, the time seemed ripe to get into the game of golf. And that's when Lake Jackson made its first major error: It was decided to buy land for the golf course first, and then sort out any problems later. Without any feasibility studies in hand, in May 1990 the city paid $400,000 for 400 acres on the west side of town, enough to build two 18-hole courses. Densely thicketed with oak, pecan, green ash, blackberries and palmetto, the plot was subject to flooding from the nearby Brazos River. It was also adjacent to the city's 400-acre Wilderness Park, which sits at the confluence of the Brazos River and Buffalo Camp Bayou.
At $1,000 an acre, the land was a little pricey for hard-to-develop forested wetlands, which then, and now, more typically sold for $500 to $600 an acre. But the city had paid that much and more for its Wilderness Park in 1976. And besides, land sitting in the hands of waiting developers on the city's forested and undeveloped north side was priced at as much as $6,000 an acre. Putting a public golf course in the midst of that land, owned by the town's leading developers, including state Senator Buster Brown, would have seemed like an egregious, insider kind of deal.
Instead of putting its golf course where its developers believed the city would grow, the city found a site away from the development trends. The location was within Lake Jackson's boundaries, and it was thought that it would be reasonably inexpensive to extend city services there. City officials would say later that by putting a golf course next to Wilderness Park, they were creating a buffer that would protect the park from the encroachment of future development. Environmentalists, though, have always maintained that a golf course is development, and would discourage wildlife and almost certainly encourage homebuilding on vacant land near its fairways.
The land was selected by Williams and Lake Jackson's longtime city manager A.A. MacLean and approved by City Council. Williams declined to talk to the Press, but if she had, it would have been instructive to ask her why she bought land for two golf courses when nobody had determined if the area had enough golfers to sustain such a large investment.
But all over the country other towns were building golf courses with the help of private developers who arranged creative financing. It may have been that Williams just didn't want Lake Jackson to get left behind. Once the city had closed on its land in May 1990, Williams organized a committee that chose a Houston company, Golf Services Group, to conduct a feasibility study and to discuss ways to finance and manage the planned-for courses. Golf Services Group and Potomac Financial Group of Houston were developing a similar project for the town of Bay City on a site near the Colorado River, and for both cities the firms proposed deals that promised that no tax money would be used.
Golf Services and Potomac Financial proposed that a nonprofit corporation using Lake Jackson's tax exempt status sell municipal bonds to pay for the construction and startup of the golf course; fees from golfers would be used to pay off the bonds. Such bonds could be characterized as junk bonds because of the high degree of risk attached them. If the company failed to accurately forecast the number of rounds played, the course wouldn't have enough revenue to pay off the bonds. Both Bay City and Lake Jackson were told they could afford $6 million courses.
As it turned out, Bay City followed the advice given. The bonds were sold, the course was begun -- and then town leaders found there wouldn't be enough money generated in greens fees to cover the startup cost. In 1993, the city hired an outside analyst who concluded that while the city was building a $6 million course, it could actually only afford one for $4.5 million. So in October 1993, before its course even opened, Bay City decided to walk away from a $1.4 million bond payment, putting its Moody's bond rating in the dumper. The debt for the golf course was refinanced, and the course was handed over to the insurance company that bought the bonds. The matter has been in the hands of lawyers since.
A similar scenario might have unfolded in Lake Jackson, had it not been saved from such a debacle by a completely different set of problems -- if, that is, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife hadn't been so concerned about wetlands on the golf course site. That concern raised the mystery of why the land had been purchased without first performing an environmental assessment. The city bought the land from a failing Lake Jackson thrift, American Savings and Loan, that fell into federal receivership and then the hands of the Resolution Trust Corporation. Current city manager Bill Yenne and Williams have constantly complained that if the federal government prized the golf course site so highly, then the RTC should have informed them, as is required by federal procedures, that the city was buying wetlands. Federal wildlife officials have no good answer to that complaint. All they can say is that they've searched RTC records warehoused in Dallas and haven't been able to find any paper from RTC concerning an environmental assessment of the land.
Lake Jackson officials have also contended that enforcement of wetlands regulations intensified after they bought the land, but this argument seems disingenuous. The flood-prone city is only 13 feet above sea level. It is a dozen miles from the Gulf of Mexico and is crossed by the Brazos River and Oyster Creek. Drainage and environmental problems are a concern of every development in the area and have been for many years. The city learned plenty about dealing with flood-prone wetlands when it bought Wilderness Park in the mid-'70s. And the basic elements of the Clean Water Act have been in place since 1979. Too, the requirements for delineating wetlands were codified in 1987, at least two years before the city bought its hoped-for golf course. In this case, ignorance of the rules seems a hard argument to sell. But indifference to them ... well, that might be a different story.
By December 1990, a few months after Lake Jackson bought its land, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was meeting with the city about a wetlands designation and urged it to hire a professional consultant to evaluate the site. The city chose Katie Northup, who found such significant wetlands on the 200 acres of the parcel closest to the Brazos River that the city decided not to develop that area at all. So much for a 36-hole golf course. But when Northup found only a little more than seven acres of wetlands on the site's northern parcel, which would seem to make it usable as an 18-hole course, the Corps wasn't satisfied. In April 1993, the city was told to look again. It sounded like the environmental regulators had made up their minds: They didn't think any development should go on in these lands.
Although the Corps is the lead agency in making wetlands determinations, other agencies, including U.S. Fish and Wildlife, the Environmental Protection Agency and Texas Parks and Wildlife, have input into the process as well, and can appeal a Corps permitting decision. All of these agencies objected to a golf course going on the Lake Jackson site. While a great deal of energy was spent on determining exactly how wetlands were defined and measured, the bottom line for the Fish and Wildlife service was that the golf course site was part of a much bigger contiguous parcel of 1,600 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, forest that is as rare and important to Texas's wildlife and migrating birds as the rain forest is to the birds and other wildlife of Central and South America. Such parcels of contiguous forest are in short supply. Slicing fairways through this habitat would greatly lessen its value to the dwindling populations of migratory songbirds. And a golf course would almost certainly attract development on an adjoining 600-acre parcel that had been bought by a Lake Jackson doctor after the city announced its golf course plans.
By December 1994, Lake Jackson had spent $94,000 on consultants, and the citizens were getting impatient. Federal wildlife officials were still objecting to the city's wetlands study and wanted a study made of potholes in the land, small depressions in the clay soil that hold water. One Council member argued that it might be better to cut the city's losses, quit fighting and find another place to build its golf course. But that was a decidedly minority opinion. The majority wanted to dig in and push for what they'd planned on from the beginning. So the city decided to pay Northup for yet more studies.
But if the city wasn't backing down, neither were its opponents. One reason for being so strict about the wetlands, the Corps wrote Lake Jackson city manager Bill Yenne in August 1994, was that under the law the city had to prove that no other site was "practicable." It was a point that didn't seem to get across to Doris Williams and the local boosters of the golf course site, including the daily newspaper, the Brazosport Facts. Editorial writers for the Facts thundered about "golf course gobbledygook" and protested that a course couldn't possibly hurt the environment. Besides, to Williams the future development of Lake Jackson hinged on building the golf course on her site.
That position is a bit surprising, since the future of the city has long seemed pointed away from the golf course site toward an area north of FM 2004 bordered on the west by state highway 288, the main road from Houston. This wooded land has been the subject of speculators' interest for years, selling from $2,000 to $6,000 an acre. One of the speculators has been state Senator Buster Brown, who has interests in 84 acres of land in the area, some of it in a prime spot for commercial development [see "Murky Water," April 11].
One of the primary developers of this area is John Cone, whose company, Flagridge Estates, holds a stake in several hundred acres of the land north of FM 2004. Cone says that as early as 1993 he talked to both Williams and city manager Bill Yenne about developing the Lake Jackson golf course on some of the property north of the city. At the time, he even obtained a wetlands determination from the Corps of Engineers saying the land would be suitable for a course. Williams has told the Brazosport Facts that she didn't think the offer was serious. But for whatever reason, she didn't pursue it. Cone, however, insists that while he never put his proposal in writing, he was "dead serious" and mentioned the offer to Williams several times.
Another offer of land came to Williams from a well-connected real estate man named Jim Atkins, who told the Brazosport Facts only this fall that he, too, had tried to interest the mayor in land north of town, a parcel owned by a local physician, Larry Smith, but got nowhere. Atkins had been a partner of Buster Brown and handled land deals for Dow. Some Council members would later say they resented not hearing about the offers.
If Williams wouldn't listen to local developers, it was unlikely she was going to listen to the city's own environmental consultant. In 1994, Glenn W. Laird, who had been hired by Lake Jackson's master plan consultants, submitted a wetlands investigation to the City Council. Laird concluded his report by saying that development should be discouraged at the golf course site and encouraged at the FM 2004 site. While Laird's report was discussed by City Council, it was never included in the city's published master plan.
Alarmed by the city's stubborn pursuit of its golf course site, in the spring of 1995 a handful of Lake Jackson residents formed The Wilderness Initiative Group (TWIG), gathered 230 signatures and petitioned City Council for a referendum on the use of the property. TWIG wanted the site set aside as a part of the existing Wilderness Park and left undeveloped until voters were given a chance in a referendum to decide what to do with it. TWIG supporters harped on the theme that the City Council had wanted to fund the course with junk bonds, although by that time the city had withdrawn from its deal with Golf Services and Potomac Financial. Though the referendum was pushed by the environmentalists, it was welcomed by the supporters of the golf course, who looked on it as a chance to make known their agreement with what the city was doing. And they did: TWIG lost the May 1995 referendum by two to one.
Williams had another trump card to play. With the Republican sweep of Congress in the fall of 1994, Tom DeLay of Sugar Land had become House majority whip. DeLay was a friend of Williams and an outspoken critic of the Corps and the Environmental Protection Agency, which he frequently compared to the Gestapo. In the Lake Jackson golf course controversy he had a perfect opportunity to flex his new political muscle. In the spring of 1995 he introduced amendments to House appropriations bills that forbade U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the EPA from further protesting the wetlands permit for the Lake Jackson golf course. The course became a national symbol for property rights and DeLay's attempts to roll back provisions of the Clean Water Act and prevent the EPA from doing its job. Williams was interviewed on National Public Radio complaining that the city of Lake Jackson had been put through the wringer, a victim of excessive federal bureaucracy.
Then Williams found a way to exact revenge on U.S. Fish and Wildlife for getting in the way of Lake Jackson's golf course. In July 1995, the agency issued a draft document of a proposal to buy and get donated as much as 28,000 acres of bottomland hardwood forest. The service's primary goal was to purchase a 7,000-acre tract in northern Brazoria County called the Osceola Plantation. Its large lakes sheltered tens of thousands of wintering waterfowl, as well as several nesting bald eagles. The refuge would be called the Columbia Bottomlands Refuge, and its scattered parcels of land would include land near the four major rivers that flow to the Gulf in Brazoria and Matagorda counties. None of the land that Fish and Wildlife wanted was near the golf course site, but the document calling for the refuge did include a map of bottomland areas that covered a huge area, including the town of Lake Jackson.
Doris Williams and Tom DeLay set up a national howl. DeLay called the refuge a "land grab" and set about writing appropriations language that would prevent Fish and Wildlife from making any transactions on the land, even though the agency had been negotiating with landowners for months. Brazoria County commissioners court denounced the refuge as a threat to property values and future development. State Senator Buster Brown called for a halt to the project so a local task force could restudy it.
It seemed only a matter of time before the relentless national political pressure would affect the Corps of Engineers, and lead it to grant the city a permit for the golf course. The Corps and the wildlife agencies were at odds about how to define wetlands anyway, and the Corps office in Galveston has been notoriously compliant with applicants in other wetlands cases. Williams must have been feeling cocky in June 1995 when she declared that if the environmentalists cared so much about the golf course site, why didn't they buy it from the city and preserve it for wildlife?
She may have meant that to be a rhetorical question, but Houston attorney John O'Quinn didn't take it that way. He read Williams's remark in the Houston Chronicle and quickly sent Williams a letter offering to buy the property. O'Quinn had already bought 700 acres for donation to Fish and Wildlife for the Columbia Bottomlands Refuge that Williams had thwarted. It also probably didn't help that O'Quinn had made millions suing a subsidiary of Lake Jackson's biggest employer, Dow Chemical, over leaking breast implants.
But O'Quinn did something that the city had neglected in the first place. He had an independent appraisal of the golf course property made, and in September offered the city $250,000 for the 400 acres. Considering the true value of the wetlands, it was a fair price. But it outraged Williams. She denounced the offer as a "gimmick," and not nearly adequate compensation. The city, after all, had $525,000 tied up in the property, and evidently Williams's sense of justice was that O'Quinn shouldn't just pay what the land was actually worth, but also pay for the city's mistakes. Nevertheless, O'Quinn's representative told the City Council that the lawyer was willing to negotiate a higher price. That offer was met with nothing but silence, and as recently as this fall the Brazosport Facts editorialized that O'Quinn was a "meddler."
In February 1996, Doris Williams and the city of Lake Jackson finally got a wetlands permit from the Corps. When she heard the news, Williams told the Facts, she screamed. But the struggle for the golf course was far from over. Sharron Stewart, an environmentalist who has lived in Lake Jackson for a quarter of a century, had been critical of the way her town had handled the golf course proceedings. Stewart was not just some manic bird lover. She had worked for years under Presidents Carter and Reagan on the development of deep water ports for oil tankers to deter massive oil spills.
Being an outspoken environmentalist in Lake Jackson can get you noticed. When Fish and Wildlife acknowledged receiving more than a hundred letters in support of the Columbia Bottomlands Refuge, opponents of the refuge objected that this just couldn't be true. The Facts filed a Freedom of Information suit to force the agency to reveal the names and addresses of everyone who wrote them about the refuge. The Facts said its motivation was to determine where the opposition was coming from; Stewart and other environmentalists saw it as an attempt to intimidate criticism. Over the years Stewart has spoken against the golf course site to the news media and at political meetings, and she had gotten used to being ignored if not vilified. There is no permanent environmental organization in her town for a good reason, she says.
"This is Lake Jackson," says Stewart. "This is the Dow company town. They have done everything by political fiat."
Stewart had fought other environmental battles over Galveston Bay with Houston environmental attorney James Blackburn. Almost as soon as the Corps gave Lake Jackson a permit to the build its golf course, Blackburn filed notice that he would sue the Corps and the city on behalf of Stewart, the Houston Audubon Society and the Sierra Club, charging that the city hadn't seriously considered trying to find an alternative site, and that the Corps had failed to properly delineate the wetlands on the site. Blackburn is no stranger to such suits, having also sued the Corps for giving the city of Houston a permit to build an airport on wetlands on the Katy Prairie over the objections of the Fish and Wildlife service.
If Doris Williams had remained mayor, Lake Jackson would almost certainly be arguing in court its reasons for still wanting a golf course exactly where it had always wanted a golf course. But when this spring Jim Martin was elected mayor, the political climate of Lake Jackson shifted.
"Martin wants others to know that he inherited this mess through bad policy decisions," says Stewart, "and behind closed doors."
Federal Judge Samuel Kent of Galveston, who will eventually hear the golf course case if it comes to trial, urged both sides to negotiate over the summer, and Stewart proposed several alternative sites. But Martin and the city's golf committee refused all of them. Some, they felt, didn't involve enough land. Other land was outside the city limits, or owned by the state prison system. Martin offered that the city would buy any remaining tracts near its golf course site and preserve them as a wildlife refuge if Stewart would give in on the course itself, but she refused.
Then at the end of October, just as it looked as though the issue would end up in federal court, ensuring many months more of delay, Lake Jackson developer John Cone repeated his proposal to develop the course on land north of town. This time he had a mayor who took him seriously. Martin ordered city manager Bill Yenne to write up Cone's proposal and fax it to him at work. Then Martin drove to Stewart's house with the fax.
"It was wonderful," says Stewart, "it was everything I wanted."
The most important component of the deal was the city's promise not to build its course on the wetlands site. But that didn't mean all the problems were settled. If the city followed one of the alternatives in its master plan and dug an enormous drainage ditch near the new site that could flood Bastrop Bayou and endanger Bastrop and Christmas bays, the most sensitive and unspoiled parts of the Galveston estuary, Lake Jackson would still see itself before a judge, Stewart promised. The city had a very simple way to stay out of court, Stewart explained. Just obey the law.
In November Jim Martin unrolled a large colored map of his predecessor's proposed golf course on a Lake Jackson City Hall conference table and explained his dilemma. A marine biology major at Texas A&M, Martin works as head of an industrial sales company; he was wearing jeans, a paisley Western shirt and cowboy boots. Martin says he's been accused of confusing voters because of his honesty. Since he was elected to his $75-a-month job last May, Martin has spent most of his time working on the golf course, trying hard to wiggle out of Doris Williams's deal.
With Martin's encouragement, John Cone and his partner have already made a presentation to City Council about their alternative, and their deal is coming together fast. They have options to buy much of the land needed for a golf course and have hired a reputable course architect to design it. Water will be held in retention ponds, and, it's promised, the feared big ditch won't have to be dug, for Cone is only talking about building a hundred homes near the course. About 15 acres of the land belongs to the Brazosport Independent School District, and there are legal obstacles to be hurdled in the transfer of school district land. Another parcel belongs to a partnership whose trustee is state Senator Buster Brown. Brown stands to make money on this deal, though Cone says the senator won't do more than pay off his loan from First National Bank of Lake Jackson for $6,000 an acre. To obtain the golf course site, the city will have to sell or trade nearby land at the highway intersection that's ideal for commercial development, and Martin moved quickly to have that transaction evaluated.
But putting together this new deal shouldn't be a problem. Lake Jackson politicians are a tight bunch. Brown and the school superintendent and the county judge go hunting together. They're used to doing pretty much what they want -- most of the time.
There's a certain comic irony in this new deal. Environmental pressure has pushed Lake Jackson's golf course into the hands of the town's leading politicians and developers, or exactly where one might have expected it to go all along.
Meanwhile, Martin's just trying to bring things to a conclusion. This Monday, the Lake Jackson City Council met to decide whether to go with Cone's alternative or to keep its hackles up and push on for the original golf course site. And once again, things fell apart. On the day of the meeting, Cone withdrew his offer in a dispute with the Council over the cost of the golf course. Two other deals are in the works, but unless one of them is firmed up, Lake Jackson is stuck with its original golf course site and is headed for court.
It all means more headaches for Martin. Another politician might have glossed over the mistakes of his predecessor, but Martin is not that type of man. He was the Council member who three years ago said that the city ought to quit fighting the feds and find another site. And he is still miffed that Doris Williams didn't tell him or other Council members about the offers that she turned down.
The city's most recent feasibility study reveals that the course, wherever it goes, isn't likely to pay for its first years of operation through user fees, as originally promised. The city will have to borrow money to run the course, and the front-end financing costs will be high. The total cost of the course, now estimated at $7 million, will eventually be recovered from users over a period of 25 to 40 years, says Martin, but to get it started, Lake Jackson voters are going to have to approve higher taxes. Martin has scheduled an election on January 18 on the issue, and by that time, he promises, voters will know exactly how much the project is going to cost them.
"I'm going to tell everything I know," says Martin, "the good, the bad and the ugly, and they can make an educated vote.
"And I'll tell you another thing," he says, with all the benefit that hindsight can bring, and all the acceptance of reality that six years of struggle with federal agencies can teach. "As long as I am mayor, any land that is bought and sold by the city will have an appraisal and an environmental assessment before it is bought or sold.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.