Road Warrior

Luther "L.J." Lee looks out toward the interstate highway just north of Roanoke and to the Texas Motor Speedway beyond. As a younger man, he borrowed $25,000 to buy the land here, where he once farmed and where he stands in worn leather tennis shoes and blue jeans. He grew wheat and oats and milo and tended a herd of dairy cattle in the peaceful countryside.

Then the interstate came. In the early 1960s, the state approached Lee and said they were taking 31 acres of his farm for what would become Interstate 35W. Besides having to sue the state to get a pittance for his land, the new freeway cut a swath right through the middle of his farm. It forced Lee to either illegally drive his tractor over the interstate a couple of times a day or drive miles out of his way to an overpass.

Now 82 years old, Lee says government has taken advantage of him again. In its haste to please owners of the Texas Motor Speedway, the state built the frontage road underneath his feet on nearly a mile stretch of his old farm property. Nobody asked him if they could build it, and nobody paid him for his land, he says.

"This was all my property to start with. They just come right down through here and cut the fences up and put it up and didn't tell me nothing," he grumbles. "I've never heard of just coming in taking something I worked my ass off for 40 years to pay for."

The new frontage road and interchange just north of State Highway 114 fits into Denton County's long-range road construction plan. But, for now, the road and interchange will not be heavily traveled because it was built in advance of future traffic demands mostly to serve speedway traffic during big race weekends.

Denton County paid $3.3 million in tax dollars that were raised during a 1999 countywide road bond campaign. Texas Motor Speedway agreed to pay for all the rest of the bills associated with the project that was originally supposed to cost a total of $5.5 million.

Lee concedes he signed a "right of entry," a document that allows road construction crews onto his land. But, he says, he understood that the document permitted utilities to be moved, not to allow actual road construction. What's more, he says, he never promised anyone that the land would be offered to the state free of charge.

The right of entry document says in part, "This right of entry and possession in no way waives or affects owner's right to receive compensation for the proposed land acquisition."

Lee decided to file a lawsuit against Denton County after showing the road project paperwork to a relative and then consulting Denton lawyer Bill Trantham. He says it is obvious that those who were controlling the project felt they could take advantage of him.

"That's the way it looks," he says. "This old fart doesn't know what he's doing. Well, I'm smarter than they think they are."

Lee jokes about putting up a roadblock or charging toll. The lawsuit says the county and state trespassed when they built the property, says Ricky Perritt, another Denton lawyer who is also working on the case. Perritt says Lee never agreed to donate the property and was rebuffed when he tried to get the county to talk about paying him for the property while the road was being built.

"The answer was we're going to get it anyway, kind of leave us alone. They never tried to pay him," he says. "Why didn't they give him some money then? If somebody goes out and takes your land, do you have the obligation to go make them pay you? The people who are trying to take it ought to be on the giving end shouldn't they?"

Denton County's civil attorneys won't talk about the case publicly because they haven't even talked with county commissioners about it yet. They were scheduled to discuss the case with commissioners this week.

But, before Lee even filed his lawsuit, Eddie Gossage, executive vice president and speedway general manager, was in contact with county commissioners about right-of-way issues. On August 29 Gossage wrote county commissioners a letter that says the county had better make good on "representations it made to the speedway by securing these land parcels through voluntary commitments by the land owners."

Gossage, it seems, doesn't want the speedway to have to pay for what he sees as a bureaucratic error. Because the public portion of the project is capped at $3.3 million, any cost for securing land would have to come from the speedway.

"Now it appears that the speedway will be forced to buy the land that only one year ago was committed voluntarily by the property owners," he wrote. "It seems the county dropped the ball, and it falls back on the speedway to pay the price. This is not acceptable."

Gossage also bemoans the fact that the interchange project had already gone way over budget, up to more than $7 million. What he doesn't say, according to Denton County's transportation consultant, is that project costs shot up because the speedway needed the job done fast and because the speedway sold its own fill dirt to the project at a far higher price and in greater amount than was budgeted.

John Polster, a consultant with Innovative Transportation Solutions Inc., in a letter to Gossage, says that the contractor who built the road purchased most of the fill dirt from Gossage and the speedway. Therefore, Gossage could have ultimately recouped much of the extra funds spent on the road through the money he was paid for the dirt.

Polster would not elaborate on his written comments, but an insider says those at the speedway did not recognize initially that the county committed to pay nothing beyond the original $3.3 million. Gossage says Polster's memo contains many errors, and he denies the allegation about the dirt.

"The original project was $5.6 million or something like that," Gossage says. "Believe me, there is not $1.4 million worth of dirt over there."

Gossage and company have been good to Denton County officials, giving them free tickets to races and donating to political campaigns. In his letter to Denton County Judge Scott Armey, Gossage says the speedway has been "a big supporter of Denton County." But no matter how much good will the speedway cultivated, officials cannot shuffle their road bond money and legally fork over anything more for this project.

Polster and Gossage both say no one was operating in bad faith as far as Lee is concerned. All of the property owners had a say in the project, and all of them, including Lee, agreed to donate the land (something Lee says is preposterous). Polster says they would not have proceeded with the project if property owners hadn't committed to it.

Lee says he knows his old farm is valuable, and any notion that he would donate parcels is nonsense. He's rejected other come-ons, most recently by the community of Northlake and a natural gas pipeline company. The pipeline proposal was particularly bothersome because they weren't offering him a decent price for what would amount to a detriment to his property, he says.

"I'll tell you the way this giveaway thing is. Northlake wrote me a letter asking me to give them an acre and a half for a new water well. I said, 'Hell no, I'm tired of this giving.' I said, 'Give, give, give. When I worked for it? Nobody gave it to me.'"