The Airport That Wouldn't Die

Last September, environmental attorney Jim Blackburn thought he was approaching the end of one of the most contentious battles he had ever fought with Houston developers and city planners. The note of optimism had been struck during a meeting with Mayor Bob Lanier and his key staff members on the subject of the West Side Airport. Following years of acrimonious struggle, Blackburn got the impression that the city of Houston was finally ready to lay the airport to rest.

As far as Blackburn was concerned, it was about time. Ever since 1986, when City Council and then-mayor Kathy Whitmire bought a 1,400-acre site near the town of Brookshire, both federal agencies and private environmental groups had opposed the use of the site for aviation. The West Side Airport would be dangerous for airplanes, they argued, because it put them in the flight path of millions of wintering geese, ducks and shore birds that use the airport site, which is situated on the western edge of the Katy Prairie. The airport, they also argued, would substantially reduce the value of an extraordinary wildlife habitat only 25 miles west of downtown Houston.

In 1993, Blackburn sued on behalf of the Houston Sierra Club and Houston Audubon Society to stop construction of the airport; his case was thrown out of court because the city had not yet completed its environmental impact statement for the airport, and so there was nothing to officially file suit against. Nonetheless, the threat of the lawsuit hung in the air, just waiting for the impact statement to be finished, and Blackburn has no doubt that the threat made the Federal Aviation Administration slow down its planning. In 1994 the FAA declared that the city's draft environmental study was inadequate and needed further work. The city, rather than put more money into a final environmental impact statement, stalled. The West Side Airport hadn't been officially rejected, but it had been put in bureaucratic limbo.

The prospects for the airport seemed even dimmer as the predicted demand for private and corporate planes at a west side general aviation airport -- a demand that would make such an airport crucial, according to backers -- failed to materialize. Lanier, a plane owner himself, couldn't see much need for the project. In August 1994 he struck the airport from the city's list of capital projects, declaring to the Chronicle, "If it's not dead, it's certainly on life support."

So last fall, when Blackburn proposed that the city either sell the airport land to environmental groups or turn it into a wildlife park, the mayor was willing to listen. It wouldn't take much effort to flood the land and do a little controlled burning to encourage the growth of wetlands plants that would attract even more birds to the area. Build a boardwalk and some blinds, and presto, the city would have a wildlife park. Blackburn didn't mention it at the meeting, but he and his supporters wanted to name the proposed park after Lanier.

Blackburn, though, had commitments of only $1 million to buy the land, not nearly enough to cover its $5.7 million cost. Lanier preferred to keep the site for the city anyway. Even so, the city's aviation department, whose budget is funded separately from other city departments, would have to be compensated if the property was used for other purposes. Such a sum wasn't likely to come from the parks budget. The city could possibly make money from the site by using it as a "mitigation bank" for developers wanting to fill wetlands in other areas, but that wasn't likely to generate enough cash either. Lanier turned to his public works director, Jimmie Schindewolf, for ways to find enough money to pay for the airport site. The city has a substantial need for water wells, wells the site could support, and Schindewolf indicated that the Public Works and Engineering Department could probably find the purchase price in its budget. Go study how to do it, Lanier told Schindewolf, and come back with an answer.

Listening, Blackburn was elated. The environmentalists, he thought, had won one. But as he later discovered, the battle was far from over. Once the politically influential west side developers who favored the airport found out what had happened, Schindewolf's report became lost in bureaucratic limbo, just as the airport's final environmental impact statement had. Instead of the answer Lanier had demanded, what the city ended up getting was the revival of a nearly dead idea. A small group of business leaders has now turned the West Side Airport into a political litmus test for mayoral candidates. It's as if they've decided they're not going to let a bunch of bird watchers back them down. And that they're not going to let the West Side Airport perish.  

The need for an airport on Houston's west side was first projected during the boom years of the early '70s, when the price of oil and Houston's fortunes seemed destined to rise forever. The oil bust crushed those expectations in the mid-1980s, but not those of the West Side Airport. Despite the downturn in the local economy, in 1985 planners for the city aviation department predicted an increased need for general aviation, the private and corporate planes that are associated with the rise and fall of the energy industry. The need would be so acute, said the city's longtime aviation director Paul Gaines, that the four existing private airports on the west side of town would be not able to meet the demand. Although the biggest of them, then privately owned Hull airport (now owned by the city of Sugar Land) had an $8 million runway and instruments comparable to those at Hobby, Gaines insisted that there appeared to be more long-term demand than Hull could satisfy. A west side airport, he argued, might eventually serve commercial needs, and two runways long enough for most commercial jets, one of 8,000 feet and another of 6,000 feet, were designed for the potential airport.

With some other investors, Bruce Cameron, a political backer of Kathy Whitmire, put together a 1,432-acre parcel of land north of the town of Brookshire on the Katy Prairie and persuaded Waller County to zone it for aviation. The group wanted $5.7 million for the parcel, and in August 1986 City Council made the purchase with city aviation funds. The cost was almost $4,000 an acre, an amount four times the asking price of other land in the vicinity.

About 90 percent of the airport construction was to have been paid for with federal funds, but to secure that money the city had to have the agreement of the Houston-Galveston Area Council, a regional planning group that evaluates transportation needs. City Council bought the airport site four months before HGAC issued its study, and when aviation planner Larry Dallam reported that HGAC's consultants had found no need for another west side airport, Gaines and Councilman Anthony Hall were outraged. They wouldn't accept that their projections had been contradicted. When Dallam refused to back down from the report, he was fired. Walt Cunningham, a former astronaut who served as a business representative to HGAC, quit in disgust when Houston officials rewrote the agency's report.

Studies for the airport continued to be controversial. The airport's potential economic impact was continuously overemphasized. One study predicted that every privately owned plane in the airport would generate seven jobs; a critic who read the numbers closely observed that consultants had reversed an FAA ratio that said seven planes would generate one job, not the other way around.

But most controversial was the danger planes would face taking off from an airport located in one of the densest concentrations of wintering waterfowl near any major city in the world. Ornithologist Robert McFarlane was hired by the city's consulting firm to study the probability of aircraft hitting waterfowl. When he counted the geese at the airport site and calculated the possibility of accidents, the results were off the scale. Houston, he said, was proposing to build one of the most dangerous airports in the country. Although he ended up reducing the number of projected accidents considerably, the number was still not low enough for his superiors at Quadrant Consultants, who reduced them even further. When that happened, McFarlane resigned and protested loudly in letters to the mayor and the news media. The proposed airport was a liability lawyer's dream come true, McFarlane warned, something the city would discover the first time a plane crashed as the result of ingesting a flock of geese.

No big deal, said the city's consultants. The huge numbers of wildlife that frequented the site could be managed.

And so it went with every major question about the airport site. Were there wetlands that fell under federal jurisdiction? The Galveston office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn't seem to think so, but U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Environmental Protection Agency thought otherwise. How many acres of wildlife habitat would be affected by the airport's projected traffic? Airport consultants Turner, Collie & Braden estimated only 3,000 acres, though EPA and Fish and Wildlife insisted the number was 40,000, a number the FAA seemed to agree with. That agreement was bothersome, because if the city had to compensate for 40,000 acres of wildlife habitat, the airport would be way too expensive to complete. In 1995, after a million dollars' worth of planning, the West Side Airport was consigned to the eternal uncertainty of further study.

Instead of putting more money into a process that had been flawed from the beginning, by 1994 the city had decided to stall -- not that the need for the airport was much of an issue by this time. If the original arguments for the West Side Airport had been valid, by 1994 private planes should have been as thick as mosquitoes at the existing airports. Instead, corporate hangars were going begging.  

Regardless, supporters of the West Side Airport, led by a group of developers, engineers and consultants who belong to the West Houston Association, are now talking about holding onto the site for the next two or three decades, by which time an airport might actually be needed. On May 20, after the West Houston Association had learned that Mayor Lanier was thinking of converting the land to other uses, its long-range planning committee, led by longtime Lanier crony and former Metro chairman Billy Burge, wrote the mayor a letter urging him to reconsider. Converting the land to a park "is to provide short-term satisfaction to a small, but very vocal special interest group," Burge wrote -- as if a "very vocal special interest group" wasn't a perfectly apt description of the West Houston Association.

The letter contained a number of highly questionable assertions, among them that the airport could "be built without violating any environmental regulations." The letter also contended that a "biological assessment ... which has been reviewed and endorsed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, establishes that the use of the site as an airport and the use of nearby land for related urban development will not affect avian wildlife."

It's one thing to slide over the fact that none of the projections asserting the need for the airport has come true, but it's quite another to claim that U.S. Fish and Wildlife, which vehemently opposed the purchase of the site and fought it every step of the way, had signed off on the "biological assessment."

On June 1, a few days after Burge sent his letter to Lanier, former mayor Louie Welch had published in the Chronicle an editorial putting forth many of the same arguments as the West Houston Association, echoing almost exactly the association's language about Fish and Wildlife's approval of the West Side Airport. Welch says he was acting independently, and there's no question that he believes what he wrote, but there's also no question that Welch is saying anything other than what the West Houston Association is saying.

Then two weeks ago the Greater Houston Partnership joined in, circulating a questionnaire among the mayoral candidates asking for 20-word responses to ten questions about issues on which the Partnership has strong views. (See sidebar, page 12.) It was the first time in its history that the Partnership has circulated such a questionnaire, says its president, Jim Kollaer, who sees the election shaping up as a fairly ho-hum affair with few distinct issues that separate the candidates. Some of the queries -- such as whether the candidate would meet with the Partnership on a quarterly basis if elected -- were fairly innocuous. But among them was one that stood out: whether the West Side Airport site should be used for other purposes or be set aside for future airport expansion.

The presence of that question has an interesting political background, since it hardly ranks as one of the top ten issues facing city government. Billy Burge is a backer of Lee Brown, and another prominent West Houston Association member, Port Commissioner Ned Holmes, backs Rob Mosbacher. While the tax-funded Partnership isn't supposed to take partisan stands, the questionnaire does seem designed to flush out any anti-business attitudes that candidates might hold concerning the West Side Airport.

Meanwhile, Turner, Collie & Braden, which did a biological assessment of the site in 1993, updated its report this April with three pages of quotations from Chronicle sports writers and Audubon magazine about how there had been an explosion of the snow goose population due to U.S. agricultural practices. Such quotations could be interpreted to mean that the West Side Airport wouldn't have a detrimental impact on waterfowl, that if anything there are too many waterfowl out there right now. Indeed, Turner, Collie & Braden's president, James Royer, says that the airport's opponents insisted that it threatened the migrant waterfowl population, and the snow goose explosion shows "that's simply not true. I think it means that there is plenty of waterfowl habitat."

Although the city's aviation department doesn't appear to have received the postscript, the West Houston Association has, and is circulating the revised document in support of the airport. Though Royer's firm is a member of the West Houston Association and has major interests in the development of the west side (in addition to working as consulting engineers for the aviation department, Turner, Collie & Braden was hired by the site's original owners to pitch their land to the city), he says there was nothing unusual in the timing of the biological assessment update, noting that it was just a routine procedure that the company performs for its clients. "It's what any professional organization would do," Royer says. "You want to offer information to stay current." He adds that his company's only motive is to provide technical information, and that it isn't advocating the building of the airport. Still, since quotations from the mass media hardly constitute a technical evaluation of the impact of an airport that isn't going to be built for 20 to 30 years anyway, it would be hard to see the additions to the report as anything but propaganda, an attempt to keep the debate over the airport based on broad impressions rather than technical analysis.  

But interestingly enough, the proof of a snow goose population could be used against the airport. Bird strikes are a significant problem in many American airports, and because of their size and the relatively high altitude at which they fly, geese are a serious concern, says Paul Eschenfelder, a Northwest Airlines pilot and co-chairman of Wildlife Hazards Working Group, a national committee of aviation and airport experts studying the problem.

"The problem is getting worse," said Eschenfelder. "In the last two years we have had four large aircraft destroyed and 68 people killed by collisions with birds."

But "waterfowl is not the issue," says Royer. "That's a smoke screen. The real issues are the mechanisms on how to manage the Katy Prairie." Converting the 1,400-acre airport site into a refuge is absurd, he adds, insisting that the real question is getting 5,000 to 10,000 acres, "and how you get to that is something for everybody to get together on and discuss."

The man charged with creating such a refuge with the help of the warring factions is Carter Smith, executive director of the Katy Prairie Land Conservancy. Smith worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife before going to Yale for a master's degree in environmental issues. "Managing wildlife is relatively easy," says Smith. "Managing people is the hard part."

A charming 28-year-old with a rural Texas accent, Smith hardly comes across as a Yalie with a graduate degree. He's gotten to know most of the landowners in the Katy Prairie, driving its grid of roads in a big gray pickup. Smith's task is to confer with landowners near the Cypress Creek watershed in the northeastern quadrant of the Katy Prairie, south of Hockley and Highway 290, a section of land that sits on the opposite side of the prairie from the airport site. Much of the land there is a flood plain and not developable, and it is home to some 30 nesting bald eagles.

Smith's goal is to put together contiguous acreage in the watershed through land donations, purchases and conservation easements. The conservation easements, which have been used extensively in the Northeast and Midwest, are a relatively new concept in Texas. They assure that the land will be used in perpetuity for wildlife purposes, but allow it to be held by its owners and passed on to their heirs. Smith is also working to establish the concept of mitigation banking, in which wetlands in the refuge would be bought by developers and highway builders in exchange for filling in wetlands elsewhere. That way, resources would be used to preserve contiguous wetlands valuable for wildlife instead of restoring small parcels near development sites.

Smith hopes to announce a major refuge acquisition in the next month. Meanwhile, he's staying out of arguments about the West Side Airport. Though the Katy Prairie Land Conservancy was founded by a former Houston Sierra Club president and its board includes Jim Blackburn and others who have fought the airport, the organization stays out of airport politics and takes a single-minded focus on the refuge. The West Houston Association is supporting Smith's application for a federal grant to secure a 550-acre parcel for the conservancy and is also working on a preservation concept for the Cypress Creek watershed. In April 1994 the association helped sponsor a conference on the Katy Prairie that brought environmentalists, state wildlife officials and developers into the same room for the first time.

If there is one area of agreement established between developers and environmentalists, it seems to be the Cypress Creek refuge. If nothing else, there is an economic incentive for preserving part of the prairie. At the Katy Prairie Conference, a Texas A&M professor pointed out that refuges and parks actually drive up the land values of adjoining parcels. A refuge might be seen as an attraction for developers, just like a golf course.  

But if the refuge seemed to offer some common hope for agreement about the Katy Prairie, the controversy over the airport site appears to have separated parties back into their original camps. Is it just a case of pride, of developers not wanting the environmentalists to "win" on the airport? Or are they angling for something else, for a bargaining position in the looming environmental struggle for the development of the Katy Prairie?

Almost a year after he thought the airport had been laid in its grave, Blackburn ponders the question and wonders if what the development community really wants is not the West Side Airport site, but instead an end to his opposition to the Grand Parkway. The airport may be only a distant possibility, but the Grand Parkway is something else again, a red-hot development tool that has made millions for developers and promises to make many millions more. The Parkway, a four-lane thoroughfare designed as a 170-mile-long outer ring around the city, is a developers' tool pure and simple, and one of its leading proponents during the 1980s was Bob Lanier.

Lanier was frank about its purpose: build roads by using the "greed and avarice" of developers and landowners, who would donate rights of way and contribute the engineering costs of the Parkway in exchange for valuable frontage on a road ultimately constructed by the state. The right of way donations and engineering costs are collected by the nonprofit Grand Parkway Association. In the early years, it was run by the very developers and landowners who would benefit from the Parkway. Lanier, who owned 1,700 acres in the northwest segment, was one who stood to benefit. In 1986 a group of small landowners who saw the project as nothing more than big developers using the state highway funds to further their own interests accused him of conflict of interest for votes he made as highway commissioner.

The first segment of the Grand Parkway, a 19-mile stretch between US 59 and I-10, was completed in 1994. The state paid $74 million in construction costs and landowners donated about 85 percent of the right of way. Two of the beneficiaries of the project were mayoral candidate Rob Mosbacher Jr. and his father Bob Mosbacher, the former secretary of commerce under President George Bush. Anticipating the new thoroughfare, the Mosbachers and Josephine Abercrombie had bought the 5,200-acre Cinco Ranch near the intersection of the Parkway and I-10. In 1984 they sold the parcel for $83 million to the Mischer Corporation, which developed it. At the time, the transaction was reported to be the largest land deal in Houston history. Development of the Cinco Ranch subdivisions was made possible in large part by the development of the southern segment of the Parkway, which enables residents to drive easily to I-10 and the business parks on the west side's energy corridor.

The next planned section of the Parkway, called Segment E, is a 13.7-mile stretch of road reaching from I-10 to Highway 290 that will pass through the eastern edge of the Katy Prairie and cross the Cypress Creek watershed. It will provide more bedroom communities for west side business parks, such as those built by Ned Holmes in the Eldridge Parkway area near Highway 6.

In 1993, when Blackburn sued several federal agencies over the environmental studies of the West Side Airport, he also sued over the Grand Parkway. Even though that suit was eventually thrown out, Blackburn sees it as one of the most effective legal actions he has taken, because "it forced the highway department to do a much more careful assessment" of the unfinished sections of the Parkway. Once the final environmental impact statement on Segment E is published, possibly at the beginning of next year, it will be open to public comment and possible changes. A prolonged legal protest led by Blackburn could seriously delay developers' plans. And as Blackburn thought about it, he wondered if perhaps the revived West Side Airport was simply a chit the developers planned to use to get what they really wanted -- a free and clear Grand Parkway. In the fight for the Katy Prairie, maybe the idea was to have an airport to trade for a road.

If what the West Houston Association really wanted to avoid was a delay of the Grand Parkway, reasoned Blackburn, perhaps it was time the two sides sat down and negotiated. So he called West Houston Association's conservation chairman, Rick Rice, and put it out: You give us the West Side Airport and we'll back off of the Grand Parkway, especially where it crosses the Cypress Creek watershed.

So far, Blackburn has had no takers on his offer to negotiate. Jim Kollaer of the Partnership says he doesn't believe that Blackburn can deliver his constituency; he can't speak for all environmentalists, after all, and the Houston Sierra Club has denounced the Grand Parkway as a "road to ruin." But more difficult tasks have been negotiated. It's taken 25 years for ship channel industries and environmentalists to work out the dredging of the channel and its effect on Galveston Bay, but it has been done, and Blackburn was in the middle of that negotiation.  

For now, all eyes are directed at the mayor or, if Lanier decides not to decide, the mayor to come. Creating the Grand Parkway was part of Lanier's developer's mode; now he would like to be remembered as the man who redeveloped the inner city. Eliminating the West Side Airport, and its notion that Houston must expand outward, could be a fitting symbol for that work. But it could be an even more important moment in Houston history. It could amount to saying that developers are not the only people who have a right to plan the city's future.

"Look," says one west side developer who has watched the scene closely, "a lot of this is symbolic. I can't find anybody who has any financial interest in the airport. I do know that the mayor has no passion for this project. Lanier could change it in a minute if he wants to."

A spokesman for the public works department says the mayor has lit a fire under them to complete its report on the airport site conversion, which is due at the end of this month.

"Lanier is in a Solomon-like position," Blackburn notes. "This could be the greatest thing he's done. It could be a watershed moment for Lanier and the city. It's a visionary moment."

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