Commissioners leave landfill litigation
By Kathi Bliss
In what some call an act of cruelty and others call a sensible decision long overdue, the Caldwell County Commissioners voted on Monday not to move forward with additional litigation to block a permit for the development of a 212-acre landfill in northern Caldwell County.
The battle over the 130 Environmental Park project has been raging since September 2013, when Green Group Holdings, LLC, (now “Green Group”) announced their intentions to seek a permit for a municipal solid waste landfill permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for a 212-acre landfill on a portion of a 1,200-acre property near the corner of SH130 and FM 1185.
Another portion of the property, Green Group initially indicated, would be earmarked for the development of an industrial park, while the landfill itself would offer free service days to County residents, along with other concessions, including “tipping fees” paid to the County, and the incorporated cities within the County. Nailing down those concessions, along with a bevy of environmental protections, are the basis for a proposed Host Agreement, initially brought forth by Green Group several years ago – a document that a previous Commissioners’ Court wholesale refused to discuss.
Instead, the Commissioners Court opted to enter as an “affected party” into a Contested Case Hearing, standing in official opposition to the project before TCEQ. In 2015, Caldwell County joined with a grassroots opposition group, Environmental Protection in the Interest of Caldwell County (EPICC), Texas Justice For All (TJFA), a property-investment group headed by affiliates of Texas Disposal Systems, which operates a landfill in Creedmoor, the Plum Creek Conservation District and several private property owners, in hopes that a show of force in opposition would convince TCEQ to block the project.
However, last month, after TCEQ approved the permit for the facility, the tenor of the conversation changed.
“Now that the permit has been approved, I don’t think [Green Group] is going to come to the table to negotiate with us, as long as we stay in litigation,” County Judge Kenneth Schawe told his colleagues on Monday. Schawe campaigned in part on the issue of the landfill, particularly in relation to the Host Agreement, with the thought that the lack of any agreement would leave the County powerless, in the event TCEQ approved the permit.
Commissioner Joe Roland, who represents Precinct 4, where the facility will be located, has stood steadfast against not only the development, but against any negotiation with Green Group, from the word “go.”
“I don’t think that we should leave people in this predicament,” Roland said Monday. “Every time I go into HEB, I have hundreds of people thanking me for standing up for them, and opposing this. It’s going to cost us, either way.”
As of the most recent billing statements, provided in July of this year, the litigation has cost Caldwell County upwards of $112,000 in attorney’s fees and expert fees. Because of the billing cycle observed by the County’s outside counsel, those fees do not reflect any billing or hours worked after Dec. 27, 2016. Friday, Oct. 13 is the deadline for the County to either file a Motion for Rehearing, which will leave them eligible to continue in the litigation through the appeal process, or not. Failure to file a Motion for Rehearing disqualifies the County from participating in the process further.
“What I’m hearing from my constituents is ‘enough is enough,’” Commissioner Ed Theriot, whose own property borders the facility said. “Other groups might be making their independent filings, but I don’t know whether it’s best for all the residents of Caldwell County for us to continue.”
Commissioner Hoppy Haden, who has headed up the committee appointed to negotiate the Host Agreement, agreed.
“I’ve visited with many constituents and people around the County, and their opinion is that we need to get out,” Haden said. “I’ve talked at people at TCEQ. They have the option to just ignore the Motion for Rehearing and let it die, and it’s likely that’s what they’re going to do.”
Commissioner Eddie Moses said his constituency is essentially split, 50-50, on the matter.
Roland reiterated to his colleagues his long-voiced opinion that, even if the County were to enter into a Host Agreement, he did not trust Green Group to honor that agreement. Haden noted, if an agreement was in place, the County would have standing to sue the developer for failing to honor that agreement. When pushed, Roland had no answer for Haden, who questioned what remedies would be available to the County, in the absence of a Host Agreement, if Green Group, being granted the permit and allowed to build the facility, became a “bad neighbor.”
“The people don’t want it,” Roland answered.
Ultimately, and over Roland’s objections, the Court voted to instruct counsel not to file a Motion for Rehearing, effectively removing Caldwell County from any further litigation regarding the project.
In a related matter prior to this vote, the Commissioners also voted, again over Roland’s objections, to invite Green Group to the table to negotiate a Host Agreement, the proposed draft of which would offer environmental protections over and above those required by the State, as well as social and financial benefits, including tipping fees, scholarship grants and other concessions.
Green Group president David Green has often said he is willing to come to the table to negotiate, though he has often questioned the County’s steadfastness to hold to a siting ordinance that prohibits a landfill at the proposed site. The County’s siting ordinance limits the appropriateness of a landfill to the acreage currently earmarked for the County’s gravel pit. Green Group maintains that, because their permit was already in the TCEQ pipeline prior to the County’s passage of the ordinance, the site would be grandfathered as appropriate.
In other business, the Commissioners opted against making changes to the configuration of stop signs in the Prairie Lea community, principally those located at St. Joseph and School Street.
They opted to leave the burn ban off temporarily, while reminding the community to take particular care while burning during days with high, gusting winds.
The Court approved the nomination of Luling resident Mark Davis for the Caldwell County Appraisal District Board of Directors.
They paid bills in the amount of $351,876.69.
The Caldwell County Commissioners Court routinely meets on the second and fourth Monday of each month at 9 a.m. in the Second Floor Courtroom of the historic Caldwell County Courthouse. The meetings are open to the public and available for viewing at www.co.caldwell.tx.us.