Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Highland Village residents sue to block highway

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER and JAY PARSONS - The Dallas Morning News - Tuesday, December 11, 2007
A citizens' group in Highland Village has filed suit in federal court seeking to block the extension of FM2499, a four-lane state highway that they say threatens the area's quality of life.

The highway, which could be built out to six lanes in the future, has been planned in the area for years, but that hasn't stopped the development of subdivisions, many of which find themselves just yards from the proposed route for the highway.

Residents have fought the route, however, saying it comes too close to homes and will destroy the area's rural charm.

Highland Village is a quiet neighbor-oriented community that will suffer from the amplified noise levels," stated a news release announcing the suit filed by residents calling themselves the Highland Village Parents Group. "The wildlife and people utilizing the federal park and wetlands will also suffer. The Defendants recognize the noise impacts, but completely fail to mitigate for these impacts by not including sound barriers in the design."

The suit claims that the environmental review process was short-circuited when state and federal officials agreed to permit a less-extensive review.

"This lawsuit was filed to challenge the arbitrary and capricious and illegal actions by a group of governmental agencies that had already made their minds up about what they were going to do and then simply did it, running roughshod over the procedural requirements" of federal law, the suit reads.

The suit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas in Sherman.

A spokesman for the Texas Transportation Commission, which was among the agencies listed as defendants, could not be reached Tuesday afternoon.

Last month, Michael Morris, the transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, sent a letter to Highland Village residents opposed to the highway. Mr. Morris wrote that planning on the highway began 22 years ago, and that the property for the road was purchased by Denton County in the early 1990s. He said no homes were located within 2,000 feet of the property at that time.

Residents who oppose the road, however, have maintained that developers failed to adequately warn buyers that the road would come so close to homes that have subsequently been built.

The Highland Village Parents Group is the latest of several coalitions opposing the FM2499 extension, all insisting the road would cause pollution and harm the quality of life. None have been able to sway Highland Village city leaders from supporting the project.

In 2003 a group of Highland Village residents formed the Stop 2499 Coalition. That summer, about 1,000 people attended a public hearing on the road project, and hundreds more were turned away at the door. Most of those in attendance opposed the road expansion.

Stop 2499 fizzled out after the heated May 2004 election in which the coalition's candidates lost bids for seats on the Highland Village City Council.

Planning for the road has continued. Construction could start next year.

Highland Village resident Susie Venable said she almost gave up after the 2004 election. But then she decided to walk through and take pictures from the yards bordering the future roadway. The distances were too close to be safe, she said. "I went out there and I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is criminal,'." said Ms. Venable, one of the leaders of the Highland Village Parents Group.

Ms. Venable said several members of the group have children with respiratory problems. The roadway would put them at risk, she said.

The group is hoping for a court injunction that would force the government to do a more thorough environmental impact assessment. The group made that same request to several agencies and state officials without success before filing suit. "It's wrong," Ms. Venable said. "It's a mistake. You're not coming through our backyard. You're not going to destroy the lifestyle in this beautiful lakeside community."

Ms. Venable said no community should be treated the way Highland Village has been.

On Tuesday, Stop 2499 founder Paul LeBon called the road "a done deal."

"These people are beating a dead horse," said Mr. LeBon, who is not connected with the group. "Every 't' has been crossed and i' dotted, all the way up to the federal."

Mr. LeBon said the city's growing retail hub at the FM2499 and FM 407 intersection depends on the road's extension. That view puts him in the same camp as Highland Village Mayor Dianne Costa, who Mr. LeBon worked unsuccessfully to remove from office in 2004.

Ms. Costa said the city's air quality would improve when the road extends across the lake. The city expects traffic gridlock at the FM2499 and FM407 intersection to loosen with FM2499's extension.

"If it's delayed, it's not only going to negatively affect the development out there, it will also affect the congestion and air quality and everything else," Ms. Costa said. "The key goal in air quality is you keep things moving - not deadlock, standing still."

Read Document of lawsuit
Read letter from Mike Morris of RTC NCTCOG

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