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Defending the Mound

Profile image for By LaJuana Hale / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By LaJuana Hale / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
A gas well flare is shown May 7, 2006, on FM1171 and Scenic Drive in Flower Mound.
A gas well flare is shown May 7, 2006, on FM1171 and Scenic Drive in Flower Mound.
Donkeys graze in a field in front of a barrier concealing a drilling site in Flower Mound.
Donkeys graze in a field in front of a barrier concealing a drilling site in Flower Mound.

FLOWER MOUND - Ever since this former frontier settlement was incorporated 50 years ago, town officials and residents took pride in protecting their slice of rural paradise along Grapevine Lake.

Town leaders fashioned one master plan after another to protect surrounding ranches, open landscapes, clusters of live oaks and other "ecological resources" from the threat of urbanization as the town flourished, eventually becoming one of America's fastest-growing cities in the late 1990s.

The town even installed a wrought-iron fence around the town's namesake - a 50-foot-high mound brimming with wildflowers - to protect the area. But a new intruder looms - bulldozers plowing up the old prairie to make way for gas wells, compressor stations, storage tanks, drilling pits and pipelines.

Some residents who have witnessed rampant oil and gas development in other regions of the country fear that Flower Mound could become an industrial eyesore.

Fearing the worst, some town officials and a growing number of residents are fighting back - with protests, lawsuits and drilling moratoriums. Town officials, wary of safeguards promised by state and federal officials, recently set up their own regulatory apparatus intended to protect people from the environmental hazards that can come with nearby gas drilling and production.

But the question that lingers for many residents is whether it's too late. They wonder whether the rolling, tree-lined piece of prairie upon which they built their homes, their schools and their lives may be lost to heavy industrialization. Some residents are moving out, a study found some real estate values are dropping, and those left behind fear the Flower Mound they knew is disappearing by the day.

Garrick and Kirsten Palmer moved to the western side of Flower Mound eight years ago to enjoy the beauty of nature. They'd sit on their front porch in the mornings, sipping coffee, enjoying their panoramic view of pastures dotted with cattle. At night they sat outside and watched their two sons play as the scent of freshly baled hay filled their lungs.

In the spring of 2010, Simonson and a group of residents, calling themselves Flower Mound Shares, campaigned for three new Town Council candidates who promised to impose a moratorium on drilling. The moratorium was enacted on May 28, but it did not nullify permits that had already been approved. The day before the moratorium went into effect, Titan Industries got its permit for one of the most controversial drilling sites to date.

The permit was for the gas drilling pad located on Hilliard Field, near the intersection of FM2499 and FM3040. Titan is interested in 20 wells on the land, but the well site is nestled in the heart of downtown, with two schools, a Tom Thumb grocery, hundreds of upscale homes, and even historic Flower Mound nearby.

A resident of the more urbanized eastern half of town since 2002, Simonson says she and her husband, Keith, didn't notice when the drilling started on the rural western side of town.

"Just like many other people who have other things going on in their lives, I didn't pay attention. … This is Flower Mound, perfect community. They don't let any kind of bad thing happen here," she says.

When she learned of plans to build a centralized saltwater collection facility near her home, she feared her community would begin to look like the refineries in New Jersey she remembers from her childhood. Soon after, she started reading through everything on the town's website.

"I could see they really had some good plans," she says. "Then I started to understand there was a total disconnect between master planning, 'SmartGrowth' philosophy and the way they were permitting gas wells."

So Simonson and Parkesh Prameswaran, who lives with his wife and children near the Hilliard drill site, decided to take action. They sued Titan and the town because they believe the town's oil and gas ordinances violate state zoning laws.

Prameswaran's biggest concerns are his two children's exposure to emissions. His 8-year-old son goes to Bluebonnet Elementary now, and his daughter, now 4, will start there next year. Both Bluebonnet and Shadow Ridge Middle School are roughly half a mile from Hilliard Field.

"It is like an experiment being performed on kids so that 10 years later we know this is what happens. I don't want my kids exposed to that," he says.

But the lawsuit was dismissed Oct. 4 by a state district judge who ruled that she lacked jurisdiction and the town's ordinances did not violate state law or any other Flower Mound ordinances.

Simonson acknowledges that losing the battle over Hilliard Field was a huge blow. For a long time, she wrestled over whether to fight or flee. Eventually, she came to a decision, summed up on a sign sitting in her front lawn: "The land is our land, not gas land."

An appointed board has been reworking Flower Mound's oil and gas regulations during the drilling moratorium. At an October Town Council meeting, Simonson and other citizens petitioned the town to consider adopting procedures used in neighboring Southlake, where a series of public meetings are held before a gas well is approved by the town.

Flower Mound's current policy is to approve wells administratively, which means no public or Town Council input is required. The town manager allows drilling if the well site is within the town ordinances. Simonson and other residents believe that public input is needed before wells are placed in populated areas and that well sites should follow zoning regulations.

"We don't put pig farms in the center of Flower Mound," Simonson says. "We don't put giant paper pulp factories in the middle of Flower Mound. We zone that. ... But we don't do that for gas wells. For me, it is a fairness issue."

She says her husband, who was deployed in Iraq most of last year, is proud of what she's doing. So she plans to keep on fighting, but now she wants to direct her energy more toward the state and national level.

"You either fight for what you believe in or let the status quo stand," Simonson says. "You have to decide what decisions you can live with.

"For me, if I'm going to try to live in this town, I was going to do everything I could to stop the industrialization of Flower Mound so it won't become a community that I don't want to live in."

Not all residents are protesting gas drilling in Flower Mound. Some are celebrating. On the western part of town, residents with significant acreage have leased or sold mineral rights and built new homes.

Mineral rights owners are typically paid two different ways. They are paid up front per acre for leasing rights. Royalties follow after a well is drilled and proven economically successful. Williams, one of the larger gas drilling companies in Flower Mound, has paid millions to North Texas residents. In 2009, Williams paid approximately $25 million in royalties to 2,000 landowners in seven different counties in the Barnett Shale, according to spokesman Kelly Swan. Another company, Titan Operating, has provided $12.5 million in lease bonuses to 1,498 Flower Mound land owners, according to spokeswoman Susan Medina.

Though some towns have made significant income from gas drilling, Flower Mound has not embraced it as a revenue source. Instead, what money the city makes from drilling goes back into monitoring and regulating. Town spokesman Michael Ryan says, consequently, "It is pretty much a wash as far as revenue goes for the city itself."

In the past few months, the town has decided to increase the amount of time and money spent on regulating the industry. Officials have purchased new emissions testing equipment and added a full-time staff position dedicated to the regulation, management and supervision of gas wells. If any illegal emissions are found, the town contacts the appropriate agency.

"I think we have recognized the fact that we can't rely on any other entity - be it the state or federal government or the industry itself," Ryan says. "A lot of people want to ask the industry to do self-regulation. I think that is one thing that sets Flower Mound apart. We realized that we can't rely on somebody else to protect our residents."

Even state legislators have recently made a push to increase monitoring in Flower Mound. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to locate a permanent emissions monitor there. In late November, TCEQ installed a monitor near the intersection of FM1171 and Shiloh Road and nearby gas production sites.

The monitor tests the air hourly for benzene and other volatile organic compounds, and makes the results available online. After a gas leak at a dehydration unit on Shiloh Road on Dec. 30, residents reminded each other on a public Facebook group to check the air monitor data online.

On one wintry Saturday morning, protesters stood in the cold, waving signs across from Hilliard Field. Watching the belching white smoke float over their houses, they show up with their children, parents and grandparents with handmade signs declaring "Ban Fracking Now" and "Drilling is Killing." The quiet, polite crowd vows to return every Saturday so others will see and hear their concerns.

Many motorists pass by, honking their support and giving a thumbs-up, a wave or a smile. Occasionally someone will make an obscene gesture, but protest organizer Sue Ann Lorig says by far most of the feedback is positive.

Lorig is protesting because she wants the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to stop, at least until the Environmental Protection Agency finishes its study of the drilling process's effects on health, water quality and the environment. The results are due to be released in 2012.

"Why can't we wait for those results before proceeding?" she says. "There is no hurry, but once the harm is done, we can't undo it. We can't unfrack the wells. We can't remove the toxins from the water."

Lorig says she worries about the documented cases of health problems in the town. One group of 10 women formed the Liberty Elementary Moms Breast Cancer Support Group. Most of the women are younger than 40.

A spate of childhood leukemia cases has gotten the community's attention, too. Many of the leukemia and breast cancer cases are clustered near Liberty Elementary, where the earliest gas wells were drilled and fracked in Flower Mound.

"We don't know yet whether they are associated with gas drilling, but we do know that there is an extremely high rate of health problems, and we are concerned that there could be a relationship," Lorig says.

Some of these people have spoken up publicly about their beliefs that shale gas production is the cause of the disease. Last year, the Texas Department of State Health Services studied these cancer clusters, finding that between 1998 and 2007, all cancer types except for breast cancer fell within the expected range. According to the study, the higher breast cancer rates could "likely be attributed to the limitations of the data and the likelihood that women [in the clusters] get mammograms more often than women in Texas overall."

However, none of the cancers among the women in the support group were found by mammogram. They were too young for routine screening. Instead, they were found by physicians during examinations.

The results of the study for the years of 2007 to 2009 contained even higher cancer totals. The study stated that the cases of leukemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and breast cancer were "somewhat higher" compared to 1998-2007.

On Nov. 8, worries about the health dangers of gas production materialized in Lorig's former Flower Mound home almost a mile away from a gas production facility. Lorig says she noticed that her nose was burning, and she was sneezing a lot. Her 15-year-old daughter was dizzy and had a headache. The next day, when she and her daughter drove by the facility, they noticed a strong odor and their symptoms grew worse.

Alarmed, she called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is charged with monitoring and protecting the state's air and water. TCEQ found total volatile organic compounds at her home were 46 times greater than levels found in typical ambient urban air.

Today, some Flower Mound residents are trying their best to get out - including Darlene and Gary Bray, who live near Hilliard Field. When they went house-hunting in Carrollton, their real estate agent said the four previous appointments had been with Flower Mound residents.

After selling their mineral rights, they learned the hard way what it's like to live with gas drilling within a community.

Gary Bray, who owns a construction company, says the driller requested four variances at Hilliard Field - for a shed, a well, trees and a creek - all too close to the drilling site. To solve the issue, town officials allowed the driller to tear down the shed, plug the well, cut down the trees, and move the pad site away from the creek and closer to the road, Bray says.

"Ordinances are made to protect natural habitat," he says. "How can you cut down the trees that it was made to protect?"

The couple now regrets the deal.

"We were fat, dumb and happy," Gary Bray says.

"We would have never signed if we had known all this was going on," Darlene Bray adds.

Town spokesman Michael Ryan said Flower Mound leaders have heard residents are considering leaving the Hilliard drilling area.

"We are challenged with balancing the needs of all of our residents," he says.

"Unfortunately, in this situation, sometimes there are conflicting needs."

The drilling at Hilliard Field has also been a concern for Flower Mound real estate agent Kris Wise. Residents of neighborhoods around Hilliard have contacted her because they worry the drilling will impact their property values. She thinks the drilling may be tough on the nearby real estate market because of its central location.

"We go to great lengths in Flower Mound to preserve what things look like, yet we put what is very unsightly at the entrance to our town," Wise says.

Flower Mound commissioned a study from Integra Realty Resources to find out how much drilling has affected home prices. The August 2010 study concluded that residential homes valued over $250,000 that were immediately adjacent to well sites can lose 3 percent to 14 percent in value.

Wise says the true loss is often far greater, and nobody wants to buy homes near gas wells, not even for a 10 percent price cut.

"Some people, even if you gave it to them for a dollar, still wouldn't buy it," she says.

The Palmers, who live across the street from the Cummings drill site in western Flower Mound, had planned to sell their home in a few years when their children went to college, but now they are afraid that may no longer be possible because of all the industrial development in their area.

They never imagined any of their current problems two years ago when the first gas companies came knocking. The couple was hesitant to lease their mineral rights at first because their home was much closer to the drilling than most of their neighbors. They were told that not signing the lease would only cause them to lose the bonus money. They understood that the drilling would happen with or without them. Not seeing a clear benefit to keeping their rights, they were one of the last in their area to sign the lease.

Then, they just hoped it would be over soon.

"We had heard, 'We are good neighbors, we are good neighbors to the community. It will be there just a short bit and go away.' But the wells have been there over a year," Kirsten Palmer says.

Though the gas wells across the street are 900 feet away, now these corporate neighbors are going to be even closer. The plot of land beside the Palmers' home has been sold to Williams, and the company has begun building a compression station there.

The station's plans include three compressors, several water tanks and a metering station. An industrial road to the new facility now runs adjacent to the couple's land, along the full length of their property line. That has brought graders, dump trucks and other construction equipment 30 feet from their home.

During construction of the roadway, Garrick said his whole house vibrated like an earthquake.

"Construction is not clean business and it's not quiet," he says.

Flower Mound's ordinances do not allow this type of development so close to homes. Although the Palmers are Flower Mound residents, this piece of neighboring land fell in Bartonville's extraterritorial jurisdiction, leaving it open to all types of industrial projects not allowed in either town.

After the compression station permit was filed with Denton County, Bartonville leaders relinquished the land from the town's extraterritorial jurisdiction in August, hoping that Flower Mound, with its tougher gas drilling regulations, would pick up the land.

Ryan, the town spokesman, said Flower Mound officials sat down with Bartonville a couple of times to discuss how to clean up borders in the unincorporated property between the towns because that land was close to urban environments. He said they were concerned that it would be "very easy for someone to come into unincorporated Denton County, where the regulations are a lot less strict, and put some kind of compression station or injection well."

Bartonville repealed the land release and has since annexed the land. The town is also pursuing a moratorium on any new drilling and production activity in that area. But the gas company has filed a lawsuit against both towns, and a judge agreed to let them continue to develop the land.

While the cities and the gas company fight it out in court, the Palmers are left to wonder what will happen to their country way of life as construction gets under way.

In a letter to the family, a Williams representative wrote that "the noise is similar to that of a residential A/C unit." The couple remains skeptical that the noise and air quality won't affect their family, but they don't really want to leave.

As Kirsten Palmer walks outside and stands by the backyard pool of her dream home, she points to the stand of trees that will be cut down to make way for the compressor station.

"You feel almost forced to sell, but where are you going to go? Drilling is everywhere," she says.

They haven't even checked with a real estate agent. They love the area and their home. Since they bought their house, they have remodeled it twice and added a second story.

"Had we known this stuff was happening, we never would have made that kind of investment," Garrick Palmer says. "It's one thing to go buy a house, and it's another to pour your heart and soul into it and then know you're not even going to be able to sell it."

Instead, they just want it all to go away. Since that doesn't seem likely, they have decided, like so many other Flower Mound residents, the best way to help their family is to become activists.

"I used to think that was a bad word," Garrick Palmer says. "I never planned on becoming an activist after I turned 50."

But he feels like now they have no choice but to protect themselves.

"We're fighting for our life," he says.