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Farmers Turn to Lawmakers for Help in Fight Against Rail Yard

As they run out of legal maneuvers, residents in a small community fighting against the potential construction of a rail yard on farmland with nutrient-rich soil are now asking lawmakers for support in stopping the project.

Farmers in the community of Mumford worry that if Union Pacific Railroad acquires the rest of the land it needs to build a new rail yard in the area, the familiar landscape of cotton fields off of FM 50 in the fertile Brazos River Valley will change forever.

MUMFORD — Rows of cotton that have been picked by the same family for generations sit in the shadow of a railroad track in Mumford, a small farming community about 22 miles northeast of College Station in the Brazos River Valley. The cotton is starting to bloom and Frank DeStefano, who farms the land along with three brothers, said it will be a beautiful sight in a few weeks.

DeStefano also said this might be one of the last seasons they grow crops on this land. Union Pacific Railroad has bought about 700 acres of the land DeStefano’s family leases to grow cotton, and the company says it is considering building a rail yard in the area to service the railroad. 

“It’s going to change the way of life here in this community — this is a farming community, and it is going to become an industrial community,” DeStefano said. “For the people who live here, there’s not going to be nighttime. There’s going to be noise and lights constantly.”

About 50 farmers and landowners who are part of a coalition called the Brazos River Bottom Alliance are fighting the potential construction of the rail yard, concerned it will destroy longtime farmland and damage the environment. After two years of working to block the project, the farmers have run out of legal maneuvers and are now pleading with lawmakers to use their political weight to urge the company to choose a different location for the yard. Last week, they sent a letter to 21 federal and state officials asking for support.

A spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad says the company has not finalized the project and could not give details about it. The spokesman, Jeff DeGraff, confirmed that Union Pacific has approached landowners in the area about purchasing land for a classification yard "where we would receive inbound trains, sort the cars and assemble outbound trains."

“This is one of many projects that UP is exploring at this time, as we are looking for ways to increase our capacity to meet the demand created by the growing economy,” DeGraff said. “These projects would also ... improve our efficiency, which could allow for positive public impacts as our trains run more freely.”

Proponents of the rail yard have argued it will boost the local economy and bring more than 200 new jobs to the area. In 2012 the mayor of nearby Hearne said in a post on the city's website he was sympathetic to the landowners in the Brazos River Valley but he hoped the two parties could work out their issues.

"Our local economy would benefit significantly from this sizeable capital investment by a major national corporation," Hearne Mayor Ruben Gomez wrote in 2012. He said then the project would develop about 1,100 acres of land. Gomez could not be reached on Wednesday for comment. 

Union Pacific Railroad has been negotiating with landowners, but the company can use eminent domain to force landowners to part with their property if they will not sell. Eminent domain laws allow the government or a private company building a project for the public to force landowners into selling private property for public use. 

“This is an abuse of eminent domain — our federal constitution and our state constitution never intended for it to be used in this way,” said Kathleen Hubbard, a board member of the Brazos River Bottom Alliance. “This is a tragedy — I don’t know any other way to describe it.”

Sicilian and Italian immigrants settled Mumford in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Initially the immigrants were sharecroppers, who worked on the land for plantation owners. But when frequent flooding from the Brazos River made the land seem like more trouble than it was worth, plantation owners sold the land to the immigrants. Ironically, it was the flooding that eventually made the land so valuable and rich in nutrients — Hubbard said it can grow practically anything. An article that ran in the Dallas Morning News on Sept. 11, 1902 said an “international committee” awarded the Brazos River Valley’s soil a medal for the richest, most nutrient-filled soil in the world. 

Hubbard and others have raised concerns about how a rail yard might affect their famous soil, the shallow aquifer and the Brazos River.

But an attempt to force the government to require an environmental impact study was unsuccessful, said Mary Conner, a Houston-based lawyer for the Brazos River Bottom Alliance. An environmental impact study is required when new rail lines are being constructed. But since the project is building a rail yard, and not new lines, Conner said the state’s Surface Transportation Board denied a petition from the group and ruled the Union Pacific Railroad did not need an environmental impact study to proceed.

“They have defined ‘new lines’ in such a way that it really limits the projects that the [Surface Transportation Board] takes authority over,” Conner said. 

Blair Fitzsimons, the executive director of the Texas Agricultural Land Trust, said there are few options for private landowners in Texas who are fighting against eminent domain. She said one option is to pursue a conservation easement, which is a legal agreement between a landowner and the government that decreases the property value and prevents any future development on the land. Fitzsimons said this method protects properties from eminent domain only if landowners can find a federal funding source to buy the conservation easement, which is not common.

“We run into this issue a lot, because in Texas private landowners have very few protections in the tool box against eminent domain,” Fitzsimons said. "Private landowners have very little recourse when it comes to condemnation."

This is not the first time Mumford farmers have turned to elected officials for help. They have met with Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Todd Staples and with U.S. Rep. Bill Flores about the rail yard. Neither Staples nor Flores returned a call seeking comment. 

Campaign finance reports also show the Union Pacific Fund for Effective Government Political Action Committee has given more than $2.2 million in 717 campaign contributions to Texas Republicans and Democrats since 2000.

Hubbard said she was frustrated by the lack of support her community has received, but she is not giving up. 

“Political pressure has been instrumental in reversing these kinds of decisions in the past and that is our goal,” Hubbard said. “We have not wavered in our opposition and will continue to use every avenue available to halt this project.”

But outside the Westbrook Cotton Gin in Mumford, DeStefano seems more resigned.

“We’re a little late to this,” he tells a friend before heading out to the farm. “It’s not a done deal, but it's close.”

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