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Power plant foes win one, but more battles loom

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DIANA BUCKLEY
Ellis County Press
RED OAK - Citizens one, power plant nothing - yet.

Neighbor-to-Neighbor, a citizen's organization bent on stopping construction of a power plant proposed by the German company Steag, got what it wanted from the Red Oak City Council on Monday, April 9.

The group presented a voluntary annexation petition containing 196 signatures, approximately 70 percent of the qualified voters in the 1,200 acres included in the request.

'Remember, we are not asking the city council to decide tonight,' the petition stated. 'We are just asking that the city accept our petition and give authorization to proceed. We are willing to provide what information is necessary as well as participate in workshops to answer any questions the city may have about this petition during the 45-day process.'

Council member Kay Wiggs brought a close to the lengthy discussion.

'I am for this petition. I'll move we accept it on grounds we look into (all the issues) such as analysis and certification of signatures,' Wiggs said.

'This is a show of good faith,' said Neighbor-to-Neighbor spokesperson Melisa Mason later.

Group members, calling Mayor Todd Little 'smug' and noting ongoing difficulties in obtaining information from City Manager Ken Pfeifer, were happy with the approval but remain wary.

'It's just one step,' said Mason. 'But I heard the mayor say we would get our residential zoning, and I heard the mayor say we had eliminated the need for a tax abatement.'

Steag had approached the city in the fall of 2000, volunteering to annex the proposed plant site in exchange for a tax abatement agreement. The city's Industrial Development Corporation voted in February to recommend an abatement of 75 percent for eight years.

'I can't speak for the council, I don't have a vote,' said Little. 'But it would make sense to me that they've eliminated the need for an abatement if they annex. There's no lure.'

The council has yet to vote on the abatement issue, but many nodding heads around the table at Monday's meeting seemed to indicate members would vote against it if this proposed annexation is successful.

Little had previously said he thought Steag would not build the plant in Red Oak unless the abatement was offered, but he feels differently now.

'I think the power plant will come without the tax abatement,' he said. 'To this date we haven't noticed any other permitting in any other locations. Seems to me they are still headed in this direction. It's close to the supply and demand.'

Little indicated the cost of locating the plant miles further from the Metroplex, the largest source of potential buyers for the power to be generated, would be prohibitive.

Additionally, City Attorney Elizabeth Elam interpreted local government code to mean the city would violate Steag's property rights by changing zoning in the area at this point.

'It's a roll of the dice,' said Mason. 'At least with no abatement we have a 50-50 chance they won't build it. And with residential zoning, we won't get an entire industrial complex.'

Other citizens were not as positive as Mason. 'I think they just made it easy for the city,' said Ferris resident Monique Foster, on hand to voice her concerns about the plant's emissions. 'They have no guarantee they won't still vote for the abatement.'

Bob Bardell, a former reporter with the Ellis County Press, had a similar outlook. 'What are they going to get for their 62 cents?' he asked. 'Nothing but a power plant in the back yard. It's the classic camel's nose - once they let (the power plant) in, they'll have to let other (industrial projects) in.'

Neighbor-to-Neighbor plans to move forward on other fronts in the meantime.

'After this we will focus on our appeal to the EPA, since Ellis County qualified for the non-attainment designation last year,' she said. 'Although I understand some of our own officials asked them to hold off.'

Members will also attend U.S. Representative Martin Frost's open forum at the Waxahachie Civic Center on April 17 to urge his participation in the air quality regulation issue.

'We are trying to get citizens to raise a resolution for the city to cease and desist on any further efforts to entice the power plant into our community,' Mason said. 'And we plan to pursue our contested case hearing with the TNRCC.'

Steag's air permit application is currently in the review process in Austin.

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