The two-year-long battle behind the scenes by two big landowners over the location of a major road reached its climax on Tuesday, Dec. 7 at the Commissioners Court meeting in Fort Bend County, with both sides exchanging barbs and alleging deception.
The landowners are the George Foundation, owners of the 20,000-acre ranch and The Signorelli Company, developers of the 4,700-acre, adjacent Austin Point Development.
The thoroughfare in dispute is the intersection of the proposed Grand Parkway Segment C and the proposed extension of the Fort Bend Parkway Toll Road.
The George Foundation claimed the intersection was inside its property, while Signorelli Company claimed they bought the land for development because the Major Thoroughfare Plan showed the intersection inside Austin Point.
Signorelly alleged that 60 days after they closed on the Austin Point deal, the George Foundation got the Major Thorough Plan altered by the county and moved the intersection inside the George Ranch property.
The George Foundation hung its hat on the original Record of Decision on the Grand Parkway alignment and the February 2020 change to the MTP.
On Dec. 7, after a public hearing, the Commissioners Court unanimously approved the amended MTP, with the location of the toll roads’ intersection inside the Signorelli property.
The George Foundation said “as a private foundation for federal tax purposes, the Foundation could not engage in legislative lobbying or in any type of trade or business,” indirectly alluding to the campaign contributions made by the Signorelli Co. to all the five members of the commissioners court.
In response to the insinuation that political contributions were connected to Commissioners’ Court decision, Signorelli said “The underlying implication is offensive. The 5-0 vote of the Commissioners’ Court was on basis of the best interests of the County established by the facts presented.”
What made the commissioners court approve the MTP in favor of the Signorelli company? What are the facts of the case? How much of the claims made by either of the landowners are true?
There are lots of twists and turns, in the original Grand Parkway alignment made in 2013 and subsequent advent of the Fort Bend Parkway Toll Road.
Before going into the details of the dispute, the time line of events would shed some light.
Historical Context & Timeline as presented by The George Foundation:
•August 2012 – Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) for SH99 Segment C
• March 2013 – United States Department of Transportation released the Record of Decision (ROD) for SH99 Segment C
• October 2019 – TGF has initial discussion with FBCTRA representatives regarding the acquisition of right-of-way
• November 2019 – TGF informed Pct. 1 Commissioner & County Engineer that alignment of SH99 Segment C illustrated on FBC’s Thoroughfare Plan was inconsistent with ROD
• January 2020 – FBC Commissioner’s Court approved modification to Thoroughfare Plan to accurately reflect ROD alignment
• August 2020 – At FBCTRA request, TGF delivers Letter of Intent (LOI) for the acquisition of ROW .
The timeline presented by The Signorelli Co.:
August 2012: U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration, TxDOT, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Final Environment Impact Statement
January 2013: TxDOT and the Grand Parkway Association Public workshop Summary Report
March 2013: U.S. Department of Transportation: Federal Highway Administration Record of Decision
February 2015 Fort Bend County Commissioners’ Court Adopts Major Thoroughfare Plan (MTP)
March 2017: TxDOT Document Reevaluation Checklist
December 2017: The Signorelli Company Closes on Land for Austin Point
February 2020: Fort Bend County Commissioners’ Court Modifies MTP, at the request of the George Foundation
September 2020: Fort Bend Grand Parkway Toll Road Authority Signorelli and George Foundation Present on Alignment
October 2021: Fort Bend County Commissioners’ Court Road Development Agreement (Reevaluation)
Roger Adamson, CEO of The George Foundation, spoke at the public hearing on Dec. 7 “to educate those attending today as to the negative consequences to the citizens of Fort Bend County resulting from the Commissioners’ actions on October 12 relating to Segment C of the Grand Parkway extension within Fort Bend County.
“At the Court’s meeting on October 12, the five of you voted to begin to reverse a quarter-century planning, evaluation and approval process that involved over a dozen local, state and federal agencies, such as TxDOT, the Army Corps of Engineers, and environmental groups, on the optimal way to extend the Grand Parkway within Fort Bend County.
“But with no prior announcement, and in the absence of any real public discourse, on October 12 the Commissioners inexplicably changed that. In fact, the video of your October meeting, shows this Court seemingly ignored 25 years of extensive and thorough planning work in less than 25 seconds.
“In so doing, the Commissioners have thrown away and wasted a tremendous investment of taxpayer resources and a wide range of expertise that was brought to bear in deciding the best alignment of Segment C.
“This Court also failed to respond to or acknowledge an offer from The George Foundation to donate 14 miles of Right of Way consistent with the Record of Decision.
“ The relocation of the alignment contemplated by the October 12 agreement will have no impact on State or Federal funding, at least ethically should not. However, that agreement will now result in a taxpayer expense of what we estimate to be more than $100 million for right-of-way acquisition and, for reasons unknown, waived the County’s immunity from suit by the developer if the County fails to perform.
“Further, the Commissioners’ decision on October 12 also contradicts its own study performed earlier this year and the action that this Court took in February of 2020, when you affirmed the Record of Decision for the Grand Parkway.
“Further, deviating from the original Segment C alignment will delay the timeline for the construction of Segment C, which will substantially delay its benefits to the citizens of Fort Bend County as well as Brazoria and Galveston Counties.
“ In sum, the Commissioners’ decision on October 12 was detrimental to the County, its taxpayers, and its nonprofit sector. The Court’s decision to transfer value from the foundation to a private developer will no doubt have a negative impact on the foundation’s future grantmaking capacity, which will in turn will be detrimental to the citizens of Fort Bend County.
“ Finally, because the decision was made without public debate or explanation as to the reasons for the change, it appears to be the antithesis of good and transparent governance,” Adamson concluded
The George Foundation made the following points elsewhere.
The five members of Commissioner Court owe their constituents a full accounting of why they single-handedly chose to change the alignment of the Grand Parkway and – in so doing – overturned a decision that took a quarter century, made by over a dozen local, state and federal agencies, and involved millions of dollars in taxpayer resources. The only explanation alluded to was fast tracking some development by the counter party with the County, but there is no obligation on that party’s part, nor has there been any type of economic impact provided.
The five members of Commissioner’s Court also owe taxpayers an answer as to why they are foregoing an offer for 14 miles of Right of Way at no cost – and instead are throwing the future of the Grand Parkway project into doubt at a potential additional cost the taxpayers more than $100 million dollars.
Danny Signorelli, founder and CEO of the Signoreli company. told the commissioners court, “ the fact that we closed on the property that will make us this 4700 acre community at the very end of 2019. About 60 days later, with no notice, no opportunity for public comments, such as is afforded today to the George Foundation, The George Foundation’s consultant and former board member worked to modify the major thoroughfare plan and shifted the intersection from the property that we made a business decision to the west off of our property.
“Now, from that point forward, we worked diligently and I noticed that Roger came up and said that there were no comments in 25 seconds, he failed to discuss that our project has been held up for two years while we’re trying to solve this intersection because the purpose of the Signorelli company acquiring this land was that intersection. In fact, something that Roger also failed to acknowledge was that we collectively all gave presentations to the Fort Bend Toll Road Authority to explain what the best scenarios were.”
Signorelli also said to be a good neighbor and to be developing in Fort Bend to bring all these jobs and taxbase and to create a catalyst to support the bonds needed to develop a billion dollar toll road, they offered a compromise, to locate the intersection in a way that the George Foundation would have two corners and Signorelli development would have two corners of the intersection. But, The George Foundation declined to take the offer.
Signorelli added: “And interestingly enough, they valued their land at $25,000, an acre, meaning, $40 million and they were gonna sell it for half, 20 million bucks and let that interest accrue until some day when they got paid. That’s not as generous as us offering our land for free. But today they’re making accusations that this is a hundred million dollars worth of real estate. I’m not sure, I don’t know what happened on the farmland that jumped it from 45 in an acre to 185,000 dollars.
“And and what we prefer to be, is friends and partners with the George Foundation, I understand that their mission statement is to use their resources to partner with the community to make this place better.”
Bill Jameson, a former trustee of the George Foundation and currently a consultant to the foundation on its real estate matters, has been involved in the transportation issues and development of transportation in the county for at least the last 40 years and led the toll road authority from its inception for the for the past 20 years.
Jameson told the court: “On February 4 2020 less than two years ago, the commissioner’s court corrected, the county’s major thoroughfare plan to accurately reflect the record of decision that had been established for segment C. There was no discussion at that time and the change was passed unanimously by this court at that time. It was the prudent thing to do. It was the right thing to do. And nothing is changed that to negate or change. That decision the George Foundation has made an incredible offer of over 500 acres of right away to the toll road authority, in conformance with that revised, major thoroughfare plan and widely accepted record of decision. That offer would greatly accelerate the development of segment C in the Fort Bend Parkway and provide significant savings to the county because the value of that proposed contribution is so significant. To forego this benefit deserves an explanation from this court.:
“There are two things which you have no control over when developing a transportation. Facility. One is environmental clearance and the other one is right away. In this case, you have chosen to ignore the gift of the right away and environmental clearance which has been approved for the past ten to eleven years. That decision could greatly affect the cost of segment, C, and certainly will affect the timing of that facility to be built,” Jameson said.
Larry Nettles, head of the environmental and natural resources practice group at the Vincent, and Elkins Lawfirm, gave testimony in support of the intersection in Signorelli property.
“Way back in the 1980s, I wrote the Texas Transportation Corporation app, I created the Grand Parkway Association, I helped supervise and oversee the initial environmental study for the entire Grand Parkway project. I persuaded EPA through meetings in Washington that the environmental impacts of Grand Parkway should be studied on a segment by segment basis. I then supervised the preparation of the environmental assessment for Gand Parkway segment D and got the Corpse of Engineers permits authorizing the construction of the segment.
Unfortunately, the George Foundation is mistaken as to the law and as to the facts. Three points. One, there is nothing in the record of decision or environmental impact statement that prevents this commissioner’s court from identifying a preferred intersection of the Fort Bend Parkway toll road with Grand Parkway segment C.
Two, your decision to further study the environmental impacts at the preferred location will not delay either project but will move them forward at a faster pace.
Number three, the interchange can not be constructed at the location proposed or demanded by the George Foundation.
Both record of decisions says, and in more than two dozen places and the Environmental Impact Study says, in more than three dozen places, that the alignment of the freeway will be adjusted during the final design process to minimize impacts, including changes in intersections and access ingress, and egress points.
And also to reduce impacts on wetlands and floodplains the Fort Bend Parkway toll road is not mentioned anywhere in either document. The interchange of segment C with the toll road is not mentioned anywhere in either document.
There is an exhibit that was attached to the EIS that showed possible interchange of the Fort Bend Parkway toll road with segment C in a location and on the George Ranch property that does not in any way require that interchange to be in that location.
Secondly, your decision to study the best location of the interchange will generate additional environmental data. That is more current than the data that was in the 2012 EIS. And in the 2008-13 records here, the rest of it is explanation that exhibit does not lock in the toll road into that particular location.
Third, the location requested by the George Foundation is directly on top of Dutch John Creek loop interchange, cannot be built in that location. The Corps of Engineers regulations specify that a permit for the c0nstruction of wetlands cannot be issued if there is a reasonable alternative that does not destroy wetlands. You have a reasonable alternative by moving 2500 feet of right away from Dutch John Creek and you can build the interchange in an upland area.
“So, what they (George Foundation) have asked you to do is not throw out 25 years of environmental planning, but to commit to an interchange that cannot be constructed in the location in which they propose that it would be,” Nettles said.
The day after the commissioners court meeting, The George Foundation sent the following letter to set the record straight: