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Stakeholders weigh in on potential routes for Toll 49 expansion

Property rights, traffic safety and environmental impact are on the minds of people in the eastern part of Smith County as a government agency considers how to build the final portion of an outer loop around Tyler.

The portion of the road is called Segment 6 and would extend Toll 49 from an intersection with Texas Highway 110 near Whitehouse to the northeast corner of Smith County, somewhere near U.S. Highway 271 and Interstate 20.

The road has been built in pieces since 2004 in an effort to create an “outer loop” for Tyler that starts at Interstate 20 in Lindale and moves south in a horseshoe shape around Tyler city limits, with plans to come north to Highway 271 or I-20.

For years, the eastern side of the outer loop was theoretical. Now, as the Northeast Texas Regional Mobility Authority moves forward with planning, the agency has been seeking public feedback on six different routes the road could take in eastern Smith County.

The routes are color-coded. Purple is the farthest west of the options, followed by yellow and teal. A pink route would travel farther east, but avoid Pleasant Acres Lake and Chapel Hill High School. Blue and orange are the farthest east and go through the city of New Chapel Hill.

“We are in the midst of a multiyear comprehensive evaluation process to identify the best possible route for an extension of Toll 49,” Chris Miller, the executive director of NETRMA, said in a prepared statement. “Public interest in this study has been notable and we value the input of those we are here to serve.”

An informal consensus has formed around keeping the road as far west as possible. The movement is led by Keep Loop Off Lake, a group of about 450 people that has raised concerns about pollution in Lake Tyler, public safety and loss of homes.

“We’re trying to look out for our community and be proactive and be a part of the process and make sure the right route for community preservation and the development of Tyler is chosen,” said Christina Allen, 29, of Whitehouse, who is involved in the group.

Allen said one of the concerns is having Toll 49 go over Prairie Creek, a tributary to Lake Tyler, which is a primary source of drinking water for Tyler. She said she does not want automobile accidents to happen that affect the creek or the lake.

The city of Tyler gets about two-fifths of its drinking water from Lake Tyler, according to water utilities systems manager Kate Dietz. However, she said the city does not anticipate any problems with water in the event a highway were built over the lake.

“Both of the water treatment plants are conventional treatment facilities, with coagulation/flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection,” Dietz said in an email.

The Keep Loop Off Lake group has proposed an alternative route, calling it the green route, that would be a combination of the yellow, purple and teal routes. The group’s website says that route also would save homes from being taken via eminent domain.

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows the government to use eminent domain to take private property for public use, but requires “just compensation.” Governments typically use a process to establish the fair market value of a piece of property and then buy the land from landowners.

“I’m saying no to the blue and orange segments because it affects about 100 landowners in that area, residents who have been there for years and years, and it also affects this Prairie Creek that runs through my property,” said Mary Lou Tyer, 85, of New Chapel Hill.

Tyer said she owns 300 acres near Texas Highway 64 that she plans to pass down to her children. She doesn’t want to see the blue or orange routes happen because they would come right through her property and disrupt the wildlife. She also has environmental concerns.

Another New Chapel Hill resident also expressed concerns.

“If I was to come out my driveway and turn right, and they were to choose a route coming through my area, I probably would have to go under an overpass to get to Walmart,” said Jeanne Holloway, 69, of New Chapel Hill.

“This is not just about building a toll road,” Holloway said. “This is about building a whole new way of life — a whole new way of life because people are going to come.

“If you’re trying to do it for people who live along the lake, you’ve already heard from them.”

Riley Harris, the mayor of New Chapel Hill, said he shares the property and environmental concerns. He also doesn’t want the new road to come through New Chapel Hill, which would happen if the blue or orange routes were chosen.

“It comes through the watershed to Lake Tyler, so there’s a risk there of polluting the lake continually,” Harris said. “And then it’s just longer and disrupts more homes so it would cost more.

“And just the total length of it, the cost of it would be a lot more because it would be a lot longer,” he said. “All of those issues are issues that they look at when they’re trying to evaluate where to put it, so I think it will be disqualified.”

Tom Mullins, the CEO of the Tyler Area Chamber of Commerce and Tyler Economic Development Council, said his organizations want Segment 6 to be completed, but he said they are not advocating for a specific route because that should be an engineering decision.

Mullins also praised the people who are raising concerns. He said a group that opposed the original Loop 49 project decades ago, Citizens Opposed to the Outer Loop, rejected the entire concept of the highway and fought tooth and nail to stop its funding.

“I’m impressed that the majority of people on the east side who have been contacting us have said — they understand the need for it, and we would like to have it go up to 271, we would just like to have the design not impact our property,” Mullins said.

Mullins said major employers in the area support the Toll 49 expansion, especially those involved in trucking and logistics. One of Tyler’s biggest institutions also has weighed in.

“Segment 6 will reduce traffic congestion on East Loop 323 as well as Highway 110,” said Ted Crabtree, a vice president for Ingersoll Rand, which owns Trane, located on Troup Highway in Tyler. “This will be a big aid to our business and employees. The route chosen for this segment should be the least impactful on the residents of Smith County and the environment.”

Michael Tidwell, the president of the University of Texas at Tyler, sent a letter to NETRMA on Aug. 8 asking for the Toll 49 expansion to be as close as possible to the university. The potential routes were purple, yellow, teal or recently developed green route.

“It is vital for UT Tyler to have transportation infrastructure to support this growth,” Tidwell wrote, citing increasing enrollment.

UT Tyler actually saw a decline in enrollment this fall compared to last fall with 9,810 students enrolled. However, two years ago, in fall 2017, the school hit an all-time high with 10,527 students enrolled.

“These routes are located closest to UT Tyler, which will enable our students, families, faculty, staff and visitors to safely travel to and from our campus,” Tidwell wrote.

Elizabeth Story, the project manager on Segment 6, said in a prepared statement that her team is listening. “We want to hear all voices as we work to identify the best possible route,” Story said. “As we continue moving forward, we welcome all comments from the community.”

Public comments can be submitted at https://www.netrma.org/proj ects/segment-6/ or through a hotline, 903-594-4831.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield

COMMUNITY BUILD: Volunteers turn out to put together the new Gassaway Park in Tyler

Volunteers who turned out Saturday for a community build of a park in northwest Tyler moved mulch, mixed bags of concrete and assembled swings, slides, a rock wall, stationary cycles, an idea garden, shade structures and other components of the new park.

Approximately 100 to 200 volunteers divided into nine teams with various names, such as Smiley-Face, Orange and Alien, to work on different jobs they were assigned to help put together the new Gassaway Park on Charlotte Drive.

They transformed an empty area that had been known for illicit activity into a revitalized modern playground. Some came individually but others represented entities in the community.

Waiting for an assignment, Brooks Melton, who was on hand with the Tyler Junior College student senate, said, “I believe that it’s important for us to make an impact not only on our school, but our community, so we decided to come out here and help give people of North Tyler a park for this community. We are willing to do whatever we are told to do.”

Deonna Wright, a Tyler ISD early college high school student, wanted to be able to put community service hours on her transcript when she goes off to college. She said, “I love helping the community. I like to give back. I like to see kids smile and I love parks and I love helping the community and helping build a park where kids can play for free. That’s a good thing.”

Completion of the park was sped up about two years ahead of schedule when the city received an $80,000 grant through Blue Cross Blue Shield and KaBOOM!, a national nonprofit that specializes in providing youngsters, especially low-income kids, a safe place to play.

After meeting with the community about a year ago, city officials had already invested about $170,000 to get done the base of the park involving drainage, a half-court basketball court, improving the parking area and lighting. They had advised neighborhood residents there would be little playground equipment in the first phase, according to Russ Jackson, director of parks for the city of Tyler.

However, the KaBOOM! grant meant that the community build could be held Saturday with volunteers to assemble playground structures and different features of the park, Jackson said.

He added, “I’ve never done one of these (a community build) before. We were excited we could get it here in Tyler. This is the community coming in to help. We have (city) workers here too, but the community is coming in to do their part. That’s what makes it exciting.”

William G. Bennett III, representing Blue Cross Blue Shield, said Gassaway Park in Tyler is the 40th playground building that the firm and KaBOOM! have sponsored across Texas. He said, “We believe it’s very important for children to have an ability to play and to maintain their physical ability. It helps improve both their health and health of their family.”

City Council member Shirley McKellar thanked, on behalf of the mayor and city council, the volunteers who came to help put together the playground equipment and everyone who gave money to the project.

McKellar said, “We have to make certain that all children are safe and that children on this side of the city do not have to cross Gentry Parkway in order to get to a playground.”

The city also received a $20,000 grant for the park last year from Keep America Beautiful and Lowe’s.

Hunter Stevens, project manager for KaBOOM!, recalled that the nonprofit had asked children from the community to design their dream playground at the Glass Recreation Center and those were taken into account.

What the crowd saw Saturday, he said, was the result of eight weeks of hard work by KaBOOM!, the city parks and recreation department and funding from Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Ricky Zhu came to the community build with the chemistry club at the University of Texas at Tyler, saying the club members thought it was a nice opportunity to help out.

Bill Dipprey, representing Tyler Lions Club, said, “Our motto is that we serve and we’re here to help them build a playground for the city of Tyler. What we are trying to do is serve the community. Most of our emphasis is on children’s vision, but we do other stuff to maintain visibility in the community. We’re here to do what we are told to do.”

Cody Wingfield, who is new to Tyler after serving in the military and is in his first semester at UT Tyler, said he was looking to see what Tyler has to offer when he heard about the community build. He said, “It’s something to do on a Saturday. I’m getting out meeting people and not sitting at home. It makes me feel better. And I’m trying to get a volunteer ribbon.”

Twitter: @Tylerpaper

Smith County elections administrator sought changes to GOP poll worker list

Emails between the Smith County elections administrator and local Republican Party officials reveal what went on behind the scenes as a dispute played out publicly when certain longtime election judges were excluded from a list of poll workers submitted to the Commissioners Court for approval.

Karen Nelson, the nonpartisan employee who is responsible for running elections for the county government, asked the party’s chairman, Brent Thompson, to make changes to the list of election judges via email in August and followed up multiple times with his appointed primary administrator.

Patricia Ayub, the Smith County Republican Party’s administrator for the primary elections, eventually agreed to make some changes to the list, but not all of the changes Nelson requested. The Smith County Commissioners Court approved the newer version of the list Sept. 10.

The workers in question are called election judges and they oversee all the workers at a given polling place. Historically, the county chairmen of the two major parties have appointed election judges, providing a list to the county elections administrator that is approved by the commissioners court.

The Texas Secretary of State has issued memos at least six years in a row, from 2013 to 2019, saying that commissioners courts “must appoint the first eligible person as presiding judge” on the relevant party’s list. The word “must” is consistently written in all-capital letters in the memos.

“The only time a commissioners court can reject a name is if the person doesn’t meet the eligibility requirements,” Stephen Chang, a spokesman for the Texas Secretary of State’s Office, said in an email. “If there are issues with individuals on the list, this is often brought to the attention of the county chair well before it goes to commissioners court.

“However, if a county election official has concerns about an election judge, the county chair can still opt to put them on the list,” Chang wrote. “There is nothing that they can do to have someone removed from the list or not appointed from the list except for reasons relating to eligibility.”

Michael Tolbert, the chairman of the Smith County Democratic Party, which follows an identical process as the Republican Party, said in an interview he did not receive any questions from the elections administrator about his proposed list of election judges.

Tolbert said his list included a new person who replaced an election judge who died, and some other new people who replaced election judges who had issues in the last election.

Nelson and County Judge Nathaniel Moran declined interviews with the Tyler Morning Telegraph for this story and declined to answer written questions sent via email. County spokeswoman Casey Murphy issued a statement Sept. 11 on behalf of Nelson and Moran.

“Now that a vote has been taken, we’re going to work with both the Democratic and Republican Parties to ensure all election judges and clerks receive significant training prior to the general election and March primary,” the statement said. “Smith County continues to remain committed to transparent, fair and accurate elections.”

What the records show

The Tyler Morning Telegraph received the emails detailing the situation on Sept. 10, after a request under the Texas Public Information Act. The emails provide information that was not available while the Smith County Commissioners Court had been discussing the issue in executive session.

“I noticed that a large number of your experienced and willing judges were not on this new list,” Nelson told Thompson on Aug. 12, in her first email on the subject. “This is concerning to me for various reasons.”

Nelson said the list would be put on the Aug. 27 Commissioners Court agenda, but she wanted to discuss the issue prior to that. She said Moran had already reached out to him but had not received a response.

There was a gap in email communications for 12 days.

Elisabeth Ayub, the spokeswoman for the Smith County Republican Party, said Moran attempted on Aug. 15 to initiate a meeting with Thompson and Patricia Ayub that would include Sharon Emmert, Sharon Guthrie and Commissioner Jeff Warr.

Emmert was a county commissioner from 1997 to 2004 and served as the Smith County Republican Party’s administrator for the primaries from 2008 to 2018, but does not currently hold elected office. Guthrie is an elected precinct chair for the Republican Party representing the area near Hollytree and works for a state representative.

Elisabeth Ayub, spokeswoman for the Smith County Republican Party, said Thompson, Moran and Patricia Ayub held a face-to-face meeting on Aug. 16. During that meeting, Patricia Ayub agreed to make changes to the list of election judges.

On Aug. 24, Patricia Ayub emailed Nelson a revised list that she said Thompson had approved.

“I have contacted each of the individuals and feel confident this list is a strong representation of what we need for county judges,” Patricia Ayub wrote. “Mr. Chairman agrees on the list provided as well.”

Patricia Ayub also told Nelson that a longtime election judge, who was retiring, had agreed to participate in training new election judges.

“If this needs to be a separate training at headquarters we can host that, or if Mrs. Nelson would like to incorporate him in the process, I will leave that to your discretion, Judge Moran,” Patricia Ayub said.

There was a gap in emailed communication for five days after that.

On Aug. 29, Nelson emailed Ayub asking her to come to a meeting the next week, after the Labor Day holiday.

Patricia Ayub wrote she had spoken to Moran about her availability. She offered to meet on Sept. 3, before the Commissioners Court meeting. The court meets Tuesdays at 9:30 a.m.

“What exactly are we having issues with?” Patricia Ayub wrote. “I am just trying to get my details straight. I was under the impression when we spoke Monday that the list was confirmed and complete.

“The chairman has let me know that we are not to have any meetings with private citizens who may influence any election decisions since it would be outside the election code. Therefore, if the meeting consists of just us I’m happy to do so. I am just confused as to what the issue is we are dealing with.”

Nelson responded that day, saying she would meet with Patricia Ayub in a one-on-one setting. She also provided a list of seven people and asked that they be added to the election judge list.

“Please share this list of people that I would love to see back on the list with Brent,” Nelson wrote. “They are so dedicated not only to the Republican Party but to all of the Smith County voters as well. They are extremely reliable and have years upon years of experience.”

She concluded: “I want you and Brent to know that I welcome new election workers, however due to the approaching presidential election cycle it gives me great pause to know that I may be losing some of my most dedicated election judges.”

She suggested new people serve as lower-level clerks instead of election judges.

Patricia Ayub responded with changes for some of the polling places. However, she said three of the recommendations were “not approved by the chairman” and others would not be taken off the list for other reasons.

One of Nelson’s suggestions was to replace Elisabeth Ayub, Patricia’s daughter and the party’s communications director, as election judge at one polling site. Patricia Ayub said Elisabeth had been a clerk and gone to several different party trainings over the years.

Another of Nelson’s suggestions was to add Wendy Osburn, who serves on the party’s executive committee. Osburn was one of the precinct chairs who called a meeting in May saying Thompson had been declared to have abandoned his office.

“It is fair to say the list we have provided has plenty of experienced judges and those who seek to fill vacancies will just need proper training,” Patricia Ayub wrote. “This should not be an issue given our resources and connections. This is a training opportunity. Even those I have spoken to before complained in great detail that they need more training.

“The priority at this point should be focused on approving the chairman’s list and working on successful training opportunities, not further vetting of committed volunteers,” she said.

The email communication provided under the records request stopped after that.

Patricia Ayub said in an interview that she met with Nelson that Tuesday, Sept. 3, and talked for hours. She said she compromised with Nelson and reached a list that was not perfect, but ended the dispute.

“By the time I got home, literally, from that meeting with Karen, I got three phone calls with people (asking), ‘Why am I not on the list? Why am I not on the list?’” Patricia Ayub said.

New list gets approved

The Commissioners Court approved the resulting list on Sept. 10, after passing a new county law that will require election judges to have previous experience working in polling places starting next year.

“Thank you, Judge Moran, because I know you have made a noble effort, and you have reached out on many occasions to our party chairman, even though it was difficult to finally get him to sit down with you,” Emmert, the former Smith County Republican Party primaries administrator, said before the vote. “I thank you for the efforts you made.

“And for Commissioner Warr, who was willing to mediate, and I know you invited me, if I was willing, to sit down and help you all work out this and correct the list and get the qualified people back on, and as you all know, our party chairman rejected that,” Emmert said.

She concluded: “It has been my privilege for 10 years to work with a wonderful group of people who love this party, who are dedicated to it, and when you take off the list these people who have decades of experience, you’re not just offending and disrespecting them, you are losing a workforce.”

Warr also thanked Moran for his help.

“We did delay to give time for the parties to try to come to some agreement,” Warr said. He framed the dispute as an issue of running elections well that both parties could agree on.

“That was our purpose,” Warr said. “When Judge Moran asked me to mediate, that didn’t seem like something that was going down that road (of supporting party politics). Being in the insurance business, the first thing you do is start with the facts.”

He repeated the opinion of the county’s lawyer, Thomas Wilson, that the Commissioners Court needs to approve election judge lists. Warr said that makes sense because Republicans and Democrats shouldn’t use their authority on Commissioners Courts to affect the outcomes of elections.

“I’m concerned about a house divided we all know doesn’t stand,” Warr said. “But I’m willing to help in any way I can. I’m sure —many of you are very close personal friends of mine who have served in the past. I personally want to thank you.”

After the Commissioners Court voted 4-0 to approve the list — Commissioner JoAnn Hampton, a Democrat, was absent — Nelson described more of her concerns.

“Looking over the list, I see 10 what I would call brand-new people being placed as judge,” Nelson said. “It does not mean that I’m saying that they’re not trainable or they don’t have any ability.

“They just have never worked in a polling place at all,” Nelson said. “And then I have five that I believe have served at least as a clerk,” a lower-level poll worker.

TWITTER and INSTAGRAM: @_erinmansfield