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Finalization of Lajitas Utility District wins approval from single voter

Art by Crowcrumbs

BREWSTER COUNTY — The creation of a Lajitas Utility District, a quasi-governmental entity that will have the power to levy taxes, issue bonds and conduct road, utility and public infrastructure projects, and appointment of its five directors has been approved by the only voter deemed eligible to cast a ballot in the election.

The district — 2,700 undeveloped acres located near and owned by the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa — was initially created by an act of the Legislature in 2011 but is required to be “confirmed” in a public election.

It was discovered by the county’s election administrator, Lora Nussbaum, and the district’s attorney, Ronald Freeman, after early voting had begun that the election was not open to all Precinct 7 voters as previously thought, but only open to one individual, Taylor Caldwell Becken, the sole person registered to vote within the district’s boundaries.

Nussbaum confirmed that Becken voted in the Lajitas Utility District election, as did another individual registered to vote in Precinct 7, who voted before the mistake was realized and ballots were corrected. Both voted in favor of the district’s creation.

On the ballot was also the item to select up to five “permanent” district directors, George Kutch, Renee Lorenz, Brent Ratliff, H.C. Ross Jr. and Morgan Jones, all of which received one vote except for Ross, who received two. (Many of the directors are affiliated with Energy Transfer, a company founded by current Lajitas Golf Resort owner billionaire Kelcy Warren.)

Freeman said the district’s board of directors, who will be in charge of canvassing the election, will likely decide not to count the vote from the non-eligible voter, even though it was still a vote in their favor. Both an affidavit from the landowner, Lajitas Capital, and an affidavit from Becken confirming he was the only eligible voter in the area will be signed, said Freeman.

“We will only count the one vote that we know was for it, that we know is our resident because he is required by law to sign an affidavit that says, ‘Hey, I was a resident in the district, and I voted in favor of all that stuff,’” said Freeman.

According to Nussbaum, Becken registered to vote at the address within the Lajitas Utility District boundaries on October 9, 2023. According to a map of the district’s boundaries, and the voter rolls which list Becken’s address, he resides in one of five mobile homes located off of FM170 between the Lajitas and Terlingua.

Freeman confirmed that, to his knowledge, Lajitas Capital owns the mobile home Becken is residing in. Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa employs around 200 individuals, some of which live on site in housing provided by the resort. However, Freeman said that Becken is not an employee of the Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa, but is the son of a home builder working on development projects within the resort.

“This was a young man who had the freedom to move in,” said Freeman. “We were asking somebody, ‘Would you move in and just reside here for a while and be a voter?’ and he said, ‘Sure, I need a place.’”

A map of the 2,700 acre Lajitas Utility District located on FM170 between Lajitas and Terlingua illustrates the residence of the one voter eligible to decide on the finalization of the district.
Courtesy of the Brewster County elections office.
A map of the 2,700 acre Lajitas Utility District located on FM170 between Lajitas and Terlingua illustrates the residence of the one voter eligible to decide on the finalization of the district.

The Big Bend Sentinel was unable to reach Becken by press time.

The Texas Election Code defines residence as one’s domicile, or “one’s home and fixed place of habitation to which one intends to return after any temporary absence.” But, it also states that “a person may not establish residence for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election.”

Freeman said the district was doing their best to follow laws, “keep[ing] their car on the street,” and asserted district operations would be “very highly regulated by the state” by entities including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The enabling legislation gives the district limited powers of eminent domain, as well as the ability to issue bonds and levy taxes. It will be able to “implement water, sewer and other utilities, construct road and drainage improvements, create public service projects,” and conduct airport improvements, according to Freeman.

Freeman said there are currently no specific projects planned for the district, but the idea to finalize and confirm it with the election was spurred by County Judge Greg Henington, who called to let a number of people in the county know there were federal grant dollars coming in for infrastructure projects. Freeman said before receiving any federal grants, it was important the utility district be formalized.

Whether or not the Lajitas Golf Resort will publicize its existing private water and wastewater facility, create an electric utility, build additional employee housing or more remains to be seen, but all are viable options under the district. The district’s boundaries are very specific, and include long, thin stretches of land going out in all directions. It is currently contained to 2,700 acres but is located within the larger Lajitas Capital holdings which total 30,000 acres.

Freeman said the district’s shape was designed to maximize potential expansion. If it chooses in the future to annex additional land into the district — which would require landowner approval — it has tendrils in all directions.

“We can divide ourselves like an amoeba and turn into two districts, and those districts can likewise turn into other districts,” said Freeman. “It makes it easier for us when we have a project out way over here or way over there, that we want to spin off a district to do a solar project or whatever. We’ve got spider webs, so we’ll be able to do that.”

This story first appeared in the Big Bend Sentinel and was reported by Mary Cantrell.