HORSESHOE BAY, TX (KXAN) – Bob Sewell looked up over the wheel of his bass boat and noticed a long stretch of brand-new lakefront along Lake LBJ.
It seemed to have popped up out of nowhere.
Dozens of acres of over-grown lakefront property had been cleared in a matter of days. The property belongs to the Lower Colorado River Authority, a public power utility that sells electricity and water to Central Texans.
Sewell knew LCRA owned the property but didn’t know why – or how much – was spent to clear it.
“It’s not like we’re looking for something, it’s the way we go fishing every day. So, we go right by this property,” Sewell told KXAN, “I asked one of the workers what they’re doing and he said ‘we’re clearing this land and LCRA has about $100,000 they’ve got to spend,’” Sewell recalled.
The 1,000-acre tract doesn’t contain any electrical-producing equipment and sits unused most of the time. But there is a lake house on the property called the Jack Martin Conference Center. It’s an exclusive retreat the public is barred from accessing.
LCRA has spent $180,000 in public dollars to maintain the retreat property since 2016.
“If you had money to spend, spend it on the things that the public will get benefit of—the public gets no benefit of this,” Sewell said.
Through an open records request, we obtained LCRA spending records from May that show the power company paid a La Grange contractor to clear 149 acres at an area known as the “Ferguson/Baird Tract” in Horseshoe Bay.
The property sits along the banks of Lake LBJ and is a half-mile due north of the Thomas C. Ferguson Power Plant. The 1,000-plus acre property joins the western edge of the Horseshoe Bay peninsula.
LCRA paid the contractor $1,080 for each acre cleared and required the contractor to trim trees and clear “exotic/invasive species” from the property. The power company also required the contractor to “mulch onsite with chipper” and banned any burning of the clippings.
“You can’t use traditional backhoes, so there’s a lot of manual labor where a guy goes in with a shovel and he goes in with a mower and he’s cutting down and removing debris off of there. So, really, it’s a vegetation management program that’s no different there next to the Ferguson power plant that we had on the rest of our LCRA properties,” LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson told KXAN.
Wilson said the reason the public utility company spent the money was to reduce the risk of wildfires from threatening the power plant.
“It’s just good maintenance and good program for taking care of the property,” Wilson said.
In 2018, Wilson said LCRA cleared 1,600 acres the public power utility owns across Central Texas. The reason for the clearing: “vegetation management,” Wilson said.
Wilson called the $1,080 per acre spent on the Horseshoe Bay property “a good deal.”
LCRA funds itself from through selling electricity and water to the public. The agency also maintains dams and operates a public park system that spans from San Saba to the gulf coast in Matagorda Bay.
The agency is governed by a 15-member board, each appointed by the governor for six-year terms. The board is defined as a public governmental body and its meetings and records are open to inspection by any taxpayer.
‘CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC’
The lakefront Sewell saw from his fishing boat is a half-mile away from the Ferguson power plant. The lake house is the same distance from the plant.
The single-lane gravel driveway to the lake house is protected by a locked gate and a large sign that reads, “Area Closed to the Public.” The sign indicates one could enter the property “By Reservation Only.”
We asked LCRA about reserving the lake house, but the utility’s public information officer denied our request, “We also are not able to accommodate your request to reserve the center, as the venue is not open to the general public or private businesses,” Clara Tuma wrote in an August 14 email.
Sewell said he knows firsthand about how seriously LCRA is about keeping the public off the retreat property, “If we go over there and even get off on the property to have a little picnic or something, LCRA will come run you off of that property and I don’t understand why we can’t use that gorgeous shoreline, but we can’t—we’re not allowed to get on it.”
We took a boat out to the retreat peninsula to see the lake house property from the water. It appears to be a single-level house atop a hill with water on three sides. A patio sits on the western end of the house and boat stalls and fishing docks surround the property.
We did not see anyone at the lake house on either of the two days we went to the site.
“Is there any plan to open this up to the public,” KXAN Investigator Jody Barr asked LCRA General Manager Phil Wilson. “Not that particular piece of property. And primarily because it’s so close to the power plant and the ability to staff it, maintain it, do security, proactive measures that we have to do because of that location,” Wilson said.
When we went to the site, we found homes within a stone’s throw of the main power plant property. One home is 537 feet from the eastern edge of the power plant. Ferguson Road – a two-lane public road – hugs three sides of the power plant and one could drive a vehicle within 500 feet of the main plant.
The power plant property is even closer to public access by boat. A transmission line field is a little more than 130 feet from the water’s edge and the property line of the main plant is 15 feet from the shoreline, which is accessible by the public and protected by a chain-link fence.
Sewell – pointing at the power plant stacks from his boat as we motored along the newly-cleared shoreline – balked at LCRA’s security reasoning, “I just can’t imagine we’re a security threat to that plant way over here,” Sewell said, “Isn’t that a half a mile? Close? Easy a half a mile.”
We obtained reservation records from LCRA for the lake house and found in two years, LCRA has held 10 meetings there.
Board member Martha Whitten has reserved the lake house five times since 2017. Whitten had week-long reservations at the lake house for the July 4th holiday in 2017, 2018 and 2019. LCRA records also show Whitten reserved the house for a week during the 2018 Memorial Day holiday.
Whitten and her husband paid LCRA $400 in “fees” for the use of the lake house between 2017 and 2019, according to records provided by LCRA through an open records request.
The only non-LCRA event happened in April when the City of Horseshoe Bay used the lake house for a BBQ cook-off, according to the reservation database.
The reservation schedule lists the “Jack Martin Family” as a reservation on July 21, 2018.
“As far as opening it up to the public as a whole, we don’t have the resources and/or the facilities there to make it more accessible than we do. We have a lot of other great facilities people can go to–we’re very proud of those–hopefully people use them. But, this property at this point in time, we don’t plan to do more than limited access we have,” Wilson said.
Sewell, pointing to unrepaired flood damage along the lake, wants LCRA to look at turning the newly-cleared property into a park so the public can enjoy it, “I don’t know why they have this much tied up for just their execs when the public is kept from using it,” Sewell said.