Battle to control Parrie Haynes Ranch generates interest, creates questions

Debate over the intended use and future of the Parrie Haynes Ranch continues to concern a variety of Texas interest groups.  The 4,500 acre central Texas property provides outdoor learning and other recreational opportunities to assorted children from orphans and other “at risk” youth to school and military-sponsored organizations to groups like 4-H, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Its fate will likely be decided based on the passage or defeat of House Bill 244, a bill which transfers control of the property from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to the Department of Family and Protective Services.  The bill also provides for lease or sale of the ranch.

Fifteen months ago, per the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s recommendation, TPWD assumed formal responsibility of the Parrie Haynes Ranch and began working on a management plan as per the Commission’s directive.  Since the 1960s, Texas Youth Commission (or its predecessors) had operated the ranch but with mixed results.  In the early ’90s, official control remained with TYC, but a lease agreement with TPWD was brokered.

Under the lease the department not only took on management duties, but began hosting outdoor learning and recreational opportunities for all ages with an emphasis on youth programs.  The management change also allowed this central Texas wilderness with its unique outdoor learning and recreational environment to become accessible to more than 2 million people within the locale’s 75 mile radius.

In November 2008, the Sunset Advisory Commission noted judicial action as the state-mandated process for transferring control of the trust containing the 4,500 acre property from the Texas Youth Commission to the Parks and Wildlife Department.  As an estate bequest to the state, the Commission cited TPWD as “well positioned to operate the Ranch in accordance with Parrie Haynes’ wishes” and subsequently ordered TYC and TPWD to work jointly with the Attorney General’s office and appropriate courts in executing the transfer.  This process was underway yet stopped when Rep. Will Hartnett, R-Dallas, filed HB 244 which appears to contradict the Sunset Commission’s recommendation both by calling for the legislature, not the courts, to authorize the management change as well as by ordering a transfer of ranch control not to TPWD, but instead to the Department of Family and Protective Services.

Parrie Haynes’ estate was designated “for the use and benefit of orphan children.”  Haynes’ 1954 will directed her residuary estate to help orphans, however with her 1957 death, the Killeen Independent School District receiving an additional bequest of $100,000 for scholarships suggests Haynes’ interests extended to assorted youth benevolence efforts.  Ranch lore tells of Haynes’ unsuccessful attempt in giving land to the Girl Scouts – an additional indicator, some say, of an openness for her land to benefit a variety of children.

The care of orphans is much different today than during Parrie Haynes’ life.  Orphans are far more integrated into mainstream society.  Parrie Haynes likely never imagined how a breakdown of traditional family structures would create additional categories of children in need classified using new terms like “at risk.”  Her actions, however, did seem to indicate a non-exclusionary interest in both children and the use of her land and other resources.

Such considerations provide a reasonable position that an updated approach in using the Parrie Haynes Ranch is neither an affront nor comes at the expense of today’s orphans – it merely provides available opportunities to a wider youth population.  The Sunset Advisory Commission took a similar position directing TPWD to “expand its operations of the Ranch to provide services to Texas orphans in addition to the youth programs already in existence at the Ranch, to ensure that Ranch operations are aligned as closely as possible to the Haynes will in the future.”

The mere filing of House Bill 244 presents another point of dispute in this matter.  The Sunset Commission clearly stated:

Since the Ranch is held in trust, the Legislature cannot transfer the property outright; the State would need to get judicial approval of the transfer and a modification authorizing TPWD to use the Trust for purposes approved by the Court.

Such a transfer would include all properties, investments, and rights associated with the Haynes Trust, as determined by the court. In doing so, it would be incumbent upon TPWD to show the Court that its use of the property is more closely aligned with the intended use of the property as outlined in the Haynes will than other potential uses of the property by the State. Although a court may modify the terms of the trust in the future, while still coming as close as possible to fulfilling the wishes of the Haynes will, this recommendation is based on the findings that TPWD’s current activities on the Ranch are already more closely aligned with the intent of the will than other uses.

It is curious that the Department of Family and Protective Services, an agency seemingly far less prepared to manage a 4,500 acre facility compared to TPWD, would not be subject to the same process and criteria.  And with this deviation, would a transfer based on the passage of House Bill 244 be a valid act?

Nonetheless, the parties on both sides are lining up.  Hartnett says the Center for Public Policy Priorities, came to him seeking the agency change.  Per the organization’s web site:

The center was born from faith and a vision of social justice in 1985 when the Congregation of Benedictine Sisters in Boerne, Texas founded the center to improve health care access for the poor.

Over the years, the center slowly grew in size and in scope. By the time it became an independent research organization in 1999, its focus had expanded to ensure not just health care, but good nutrition, jobs, and education and protection for Texas children.

Today’s priorities include six major areas:

•Creating economic opportunity to strengthen families and grow the middle class;
•Increasing access to quality, affordable health insurance;
•Helping families meet basic needs;
•Enhancing child well-being and child protection;
•Ensuring effective public administration; and
•Security fair and adequate taxation to pay for critical public investments in Texas.

On the other side, the Friends of the Parrie Haynes Ranch helped initially broker the lease between TYC and TPWD and their mission statement confirms the group’s continuing TPWD support:

Friends of the Parrie Haynes Ranch,Inc. is a Citizen Volunteer Support Organization whose purpose is to provide support that enables Parrie Haynes Ranch to contribute to the mission of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department by providing outdoor learning and recreational opportunities to Texans, especially the youth of Texas, while preserving and protecting the natural and cultural resources of the Ranch.

Rep. Ralph Sheffield, R-Temple, whose district includes the ranch, has expressed opposition to HB 244.  Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen, has spoken of being “acutely aware” of community concerns.  Fears of DFPS-control bringing a selloff of the land – a clear provision of HB 244 – are a special concern also routinely voiced on the Save Parrie Haynes Ranch Facebook page.

The Bell County Commissioners as well as the Coryell County Commissioners have issued resolutions supporting TPWD management of the ranch.  Further support by the Greater Houston Horse Council, users of the 30+ miles of ranch trails, illustrates how TPWD also brings leadership adept at creating and managing income-generating opportunities to help offset other facility-related costs.

House Bill 244 has been assigned to the Committee on Judiciary & Civil Jurisprudence although no public hearing has yet been scheduled.  Whenever it happens, the intent of Parrie Haynes’ final wishes, the fulfillment of those wishes, the protection of Texas orphans’ interests plus the process and motivation for transferring property control are all topics likely to be addressed.

In talking with The Texas Tribune, Hartnett recently characterized potential loser-pays legislation as an “uphill battle this session, given all the other pressing items that the Legislature has to deal with.”  Ironically, one might expect the Parrie Haynes Ranch to also fall into this category.  That it doesn’t is why the timing and motivation of HB 244 continues generating interest and creating questions.

Lou Ann Anderson is an advocate working to create awareness regarding the Texas probate system and its surrounding culture.  She is the Online Producer at www.EstateofDenial.com, a Policy Advisor with Americans for Prosperity – Texas Foundation and a Director of Women on the Wall.  Lou Ann may be contacted at info@EstateofDenial.com.

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