The chancellor of the University of Texas System, responding to criticism from a state senator, says land the system bought in Houston is part of an abandoned oil field but can readily be developed into a new campus.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, charged that the tract is “environmentally unsound” and “a dump” during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. Whitmire opposes a new UT campus in Houston.
“Are you familiar with the history of this piece of land? It’s environmentally unsound. It’s an oil and gas abandoned field,” he told Chancellor Bill McRaven and UT Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster during the hearing.
“There’s a reason you’re able to get 300 acres locked up southwest of the dome,” Whitmire said, referring to the Astrodome. “Because no one else wants it … It’s a dump. This is nothing but you, in my judgment, bailing out some land speculators.”
McRaven responded to Whitmire in a Feb. 13 letter, a copy of which was obtained by the American-Statesman.
“Much of the property was part of an abandoned oil field, and so there are some former oil-field tanks (ponds) on-site and some plugged wells,” McRaven wrote. “In addition, a few acres are polluted by a former polymer facility site. The site has never been the location of a landfill.”
Cleanup is expected to cost less than $2 million, and the sellers agreed to a price reduction accordingly, the chancellor wrote. Except for limited detention of storm water, nothing will prevent full development of the property, he added.
“Your comments at the hearing, however, would lead a listener to conclude that the property and the surrounding area are blighted and unlikely to ever be developed,” he wrote. “In fact, the property is adjacent to apartments, neighborhoods, and commercial buildings, and it is highly likely that these adjacent developed lands had similar characteristics.”
The $215 million price for 307 acres is below the $233 million appraised value, McRaven said. The sellers are Buffalo Lakes Ltd. and related entities. Buffalo Lakes was formed in 2002 by John Kirksey, who cobbled together the land over 15 years. Kirksey’s major partners are Joel R. Scott and Kyle Tauch, the chancellor added.
Whitmire has been a sharp critic of the UT System for not alerting lawmakers in advance that it was acquiring property for a new campus in Houston, already home to the UT MD Anderson Cancer Center and the UT Health Science Center at Houston. The senator has also complained that the UT System, with its access to the multibillion-dollar Permanent University Fund, a higher education endowment, would have a distinct advantage over his alma mater, the University of Houston, in competing for faculty members and research dollars.
During the Senate hearing, McRaven apologized, as he has previously, for not giving lawmakers a heads-up on the land deal. He also said he expected to receive recommendations on developing the tract from an advisory panel in Houston by the end of January. In his letter to Whitmire, McRaven said he expected the recommendations by the end of February. When asked about the timing in a subsequent interview with the Statesman, he said: “I don’t really want to put a date on it right now.”