What is this new organization that is pushing a bill in the legislature that would restrict Texas communities' ability to regulate development and protect water quality? They certainly appear to be well-connected, as they already have the GOP Texas Agricultural Commissioner, Susan Combs, and at least one state representative from each party introducing this legislation for them.
They call themselves the "Texas Landowners Conservancy." The name is a clear effort to associate themselves in the public's mind with well-regarded, non-political conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the Hill Country Conservancy—groups that buy up land and conservation easements in order to preserve as much undeveloped land, and the plant and wildlife it contains, as possible. The intended association extends to the appearance of the Landowners Conservancy website, which is dominated by shades of green and brown and contains many images of majestic oak trees so typical of rural central Texas landscapes.
Yet, in contrast to those images, the Landowners Conservancy is fighting for their alleged right to pave over at least 45% of undeveloped land, irrespective of any negative affect this would have on surrounding communities' water quality.
In their April 5 press release, the Landowners Conservancy describe themselves as "a group of ranchers, land stewards and homeowners." On their website, they go further, saying that they work to "enhance the environment," are "deeply committed to the environment," and "support legitimate environmental protection measures." Only after all that do they mention that "[we] are invoking a Constitutional stance that any governmental takings should fairly compensate landowners for their property." This is precisely the agenda of the long-standing "takings" movement that aims to prevent regulation of destructive land practices by making such regulation prohibitively expensive.
So who are these people exactly?
Take Ted Stewart, the first member listed on the Landowners Conservancy 'About Us' page:
Ted Stewart - Ted and his wife, Suzanne, relocated to Austin from Odessa 13 years ago to live in the Texas Hill country. Ted has spent more than a decade to revitalize his once overgrazed property and improve water flow through cedar eradication, clearing nearly 3,000 acres. He has raised cattle with minimal impact on property and is currently converting a portion of his ranch into a wildlife area. He holds a BA degree in Chemistry from the University of Alabama.
Ted is an active participant in the "Southwest Travis County Growth Dialogue Process" charged with creating a blueprint for future land uses in western Travis County. Ted serves on the advisory boards of the Ronald McDonald House and the Capital Area Boy Scouts. He and Suzanne have four children and five grandchildren.
All well and good, but for some reason his occupation is not described. Not even alluded to. Some Google searching reveals the existence of a Ted Stewart involved with zoning changes in the village of Bee Cave, which is in western Travis County, in 1999:
Roger Pearson, a resident of Lake Pointe and a representative for Citizens for a Livable Bee Cave, came before the Board. He remarked that Mr. Stewart 's Juniper Trace project is a good neighbor to Lake Pointe. But he is concerned about the issues that come with a multi-family project with an 85% impervious cover.
From this and other sources, I get the impression that Mr. Stewart of western Travis County, is heavily involved in the real estate development business.
Further evidence comes from the January 1, 1999 edition of the Austin Business Journal (emphasis added):
If plans set into motion by Key Enterprises bear fruit, Austinites may have the opportunity to purchase $150,000 to $200,000 homes near Lakeway.
The company, which specializes in both pipeline construction and real estate, is the purchaser of 120.775 acres at General Williamson and Highland drives. Owner Ted Stewart already has a deal in the works to sell the land to a Dallas real estate developer.
"My investment strategy is to buy raw land, and do some preliminary planning," Stewart says. "We identify a market and sell to a developer."
Stewart says the area is saturated with high-priced estate lots and is ripe for one- to one-and-three-quarter-acre lots at a cost of around $60,000 each. Even before the land purchase was made, he aimed to set up this type of development.
"We worked backwards," he says. "We started off to develop $150,000 to $200,000 homes. We conducted a feasibility study, located this land and purchased it. As part of our deal [with the developer], we guarantee that streets, water lines and utilities can be installed within the budget that we have proposed. That's our core business, offering a turnkey package -- land with the improvements in place."
The development deal is not yet inked much less dried, but Stewart does not anticipate a problem.
"There are people standing in line to buy $60,000 lots," he says. "That area out there has the need for nice, single-family lots, and this land is accessible to both lakes and several golf courses. It's right near the bridge, halfway between Bee Cave and Round Rock."
Is this really the same Ted Stewart involved with the Landowners' Conservancy. After all, it's probably not that uncommon a name. What are the odds?
Virtually 100%, I'd say. The giveaway is the minutes of the City of Austin Zoning and Platting Commission meeting of Februrary 15, 2005. See item #28:
28. Final Plat: C8-04-0164.1A - Cypress Bay-Lake Austin Final
Location: N. Capital of Texas Hwy. At FM 2222 Rd., Bull Creek / Lake Austin Watershed
Owner/Applicant: Key Enterprises, Inc. (Ted L. Stewart) (Ron Amini)
Ron Amini is the third member of the Executive Committee listed on the website of the Texas Landowners Conservancy. His apparent business connection with Key Enterprises and Ted Stewart is not mentioned:
Ron Amini - As a University of Texas alumni in Petroleum Engineering, Ron returned to Austin in 1997 and purchased a ranch on Cypress Creek.
He has implemented a Wildlife/Agricultural plan to include riparian management and bird counts, providing habitat as well as supplemental food for birds and other wildlife. He had participated in cedar clearing programs and will work with officials to conduct prescribed burns for the ranch, to help return it to its original state.
Ron was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, raised in Midland, Texas, and lived in San Antonio before moving to Austin.
William Horabin, the fourth member of the Executive Committee, does not appear to be a real-estate developer himself, but he does appear to have a history of selling land to real estate developers:
William Horabin owns the land. However, it is under contract to Austin-based Land\Creek Development, a commercial division of Ash Creek Homes Inc.
Scott Taylor, project director at Land\Creek Development, says his company intends to develop five buildings with 12,000 square feet each. The estimated price tag for the project, called Park Bend Plaza, is $9 million.
This, too, is not mentioned by the Landowners Conservancy:
William C. Horabin - A lifetime outdoorsman, Bill relishes life on his ranch where he raises quail for release into a natural hill-country habitat. He has taken an over-grazed ranch and restored natural grasses, eliminated erosion and provided natural sources of water along with protein feed for wildlife. After clearing 250 acres of cedar from the property, he is especially pleased to find the seeps and springs that have appeared as a result. His Western Travis county ranch is a prime example of how land stewardship benefits the environment.
Bill, a native of New Mexico and a graduate of the University of New Mexico has lived in Austin for 26 years. He has held executive positions in the financial services industry in New York, Oklahoma City, Dallas and Austin, and in the long-term healthcare industry. Bill's community activities include work with the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Seton Hospital, as well as promoting health-related causes. Bill has three children.
Sadly, this is not a new tactic for special interests who suspect that their cause has little popular support: form an alleged "grassroots" group in an attempt to deceive the general public. In this case, a group of real-estate developers have formed a group that gives a superficial appearance of being extremely interested in general environmental protection, while its true interests are personal and monetary.
If the Texas Landowners Conservancy does not intend to deceive, why do they not mention the real estate business interests of Stewart, Amini, and Horabin? Why do they decorate their website with colors and pictures of natural landscapes when they desire to protect their so-called right to pave over at least 45% of the landscapes they own? Why do they choose a name for their organization that echoes the names of organizations with vastly different, even conflicting, goals?
Real estate developers are certainly justified in banding together just like any other group of citizens. But pushing your interests via deception is a despicable and dishonorable practice.