Residents in the Oakhurst neighborhood feel like they’re living a scene out of Cool Hand Luke — “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.” They say a disconnect between city officials, the Texas Department of Transportation, and Chesapeake Energy is causing the planned expansion of I-35 to encroach on their historic area just northeast of downtown.
The city approved a drilling permit at the northwest corner of I-35 and Northside Drive several years ago, and Chesapeake built its pad site in the path of the proposed expansion of that traffic-clogged highway. So TxDOT recently altered its longtanding plans, moving the project to the east (neighborhood) side of the freeway, to avoid 10 wellheads on the west side of I-35.
The reason the state agency is favoring the drillers over the neighborhood? Existence of the wells means that the cost of expanding the freeway on the west side may have vastly increased.
Now residents say city officials erred by allowing the wells to go in, if that’s going to harm their neighborhood. Citizens worked for years to ensure that TxDOT created a buffer between the neighborhood and the highway expansion. Oakhurst even sought and won inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places as a way to increase protection against highway encroachment.
Now all that seems for naught after Chesapeake sent a letter to TxDOT saying the gas company would require at least $50 million to move the pad site and wellheads.
“You’d think the city would have some staff people on it, some kind of coordination,” said Libby Willis, vice president of the Oakhurst Neighborhood Association and president of the Fort Worth League of Neighborhood Associations. “We’re the victims of their not being coordinated. That’s a great failure that could have been prevented.”
A city spokesman did not respond to questions for this article prior to deadline.
Oakhurst residents piled into the Calvary Christian Academy last week to hear TxDOT officials explain the revised plan. Calvary sits just east of the highway on Oakhurst Scenic Drive.
“For years we’ve worked with TxDOT, and they said the highway wasn’t coming closer to the neighborhood, school, and church — it would all go west,” said Oakhurst Neighborhood Association president Ginger Bason. “It’s not just the road, it’s the noise, lights, and environmental impact.”
TxDOT project manager John Tillinghast said he didn’t know why city officials allowed Chesapeake to build wellheads in the highway’s path.
“We never were informed by the City of Fort Worth that this property owner wanted to develop the property,” he said. “We’ve never encountered this before.”
Oakhurst resident David Collyer said it’s just another example of the gas industry’s influence at city hall.
“The city is going to let Chesapeake have first rights, even if they have to run the highway closer to the neighborhood,” he said. “Chesapeake has got the city council in their back pocket.”
Now that the wellheads are established, Chesapeake says it is entitled to be compensated for any losses incurred by moving them. TxDOT is seeking to avoid payment by realigning the highway.
“The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and the neighborhood suffers,” Willis said.
That section of highway expansion is in City Council member Sal Espino’s District 2. He said city council members were aware of the impending highway project when they approved the drill site, but weren’t told that the wellheads would force highway expansion to be moved closer to the neighborhood.
“That never came up,” Espino said. “It was my understanding that the highway would be widened away from the neighborhood. No one from city staff or TxDOT brought this up.”
Espino said the city council is looking at potential drilling ordinance revisions and should examine the Oakhurst situation and determine how wellheads near roadways might affect future expansions.
“It shouldn’t have happened [in Oakhurst], and it shouldn’t happen again. I’m sympathetic to the neighborhood’s concerns and will work with TxDOT and the neighborhood to alleviate those concerns,” he said. “There’s still hope.”
Willis and local attorney Jim Bradbury questioned Chesapeake’s $50 million estimated price tag for moving the wellheads. They want TxDOT to hire an independent expert to determine the cost.
“You can’t just look at a letter … and take that at face value and move that highway into the neighborhood,” Bradbury said.
TxDOT spokesman Michael Peters said revisions are common when expanding highways. It’s all a matter of minimizing impact.
“We take input from businesses and homeowners,” he said.
The current I-35 plan has been squeezed tighter to reduce the sprawl and moved to the east a bit. It represents a compromise for property owners on both sides, he said. Shifting the expansion to the east to avoid moving wellheads would save “tens of millions of dollars,” he said.
The I-35 expansion, which could get under way in 2012, has been discussed for decades, but that doesn’t prevent adjacent property owners from developing their properties. For instance, Calvary Christian Academy was built on the east side of the highway in 2001 despite the potential for future highway widening.
“Under the current TxDOT plans, our wellheads will not be [affected],” Chesapeake spokesman Brian Murnahan said.
Bradbury said Chesapeake did nothing wrong, but the city might have dropped the ball in the permitting process.
“From a property rights perspective there are no restrictions on the use of that property, unless or until [TxDOT] acquires it,” Bradbury said. “Both sides of that interstate were free to do what they’ve done. Maybe the City of Fort Worth should have been more up to speed on that.”
Widening roads means purchasing rights of way, sometimes by using eminent domain to force sales. Cities may be creating costly hurdles for themselves and TxDOT by allowing urban drilling near major roadways.
“This is the reality of having drilling in your city and how it affects your land-use plans,” Bradbury said.
TxDOT’s future highway renovations will work around gas wells just as they’ve worked around other businesses and homes through the years, Peters said.
“We will try to keep from taking additional right of way from anyone by making slight adjustments to the roadway within the [existing] right of way,” he said. “We will try to avoid them, but we have no authority to tell them not to put their wells there. This is a normal course of business.”