AP NEWS

Opponents of Woodlands underpass project believe bald eagles may be factor in project’s future

October 29, 2018

Although the underpass project on Research Forest Drive at the intersection of Grogan’s Mill Road was not supported by the township board of directors last week, that does not mean the project is dead. The possible six-lane underground tunnel being proposed by Montgomery County and The Woodlands Road Utility District No. 1 could still be submitted for funding consideration by the Oct. 31 deadline.

Despite the momentary victory for opponents of the project, there’s another aspect residents in opposition to the potential underpass project are citing as a possible roadblock — local bald eagles that have become an iconic symbol of The Woodlands.

Area resident Richard Somerville — who made it clear that he was not an eagle or environmental expert — presented his concerns about the underpass project to elected officials and others in regard to The Woodlands’ resident bald eagles, who live in a nest along Lake Front Circle near Hughes Landing.

The bald eagle family has been the subject of local appreciation and adoration, with residents flocking to sites around the eagle’s nest to watch the majestic raptors go about their daily lives, searching for food and hopefully raising young eagle hatchlings.

Somerville, who has spoken out against the project at several meetings of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors, said that when considering a major transportation project like the underpass, which is being proposed to possibly use federal funds, an environmental impact assessment will need to be done.

The assessment would study things like tree removal and flooding impacts, as well as the effect on the quality of life for animals — especially those that have a protected or endangered status — occupying the nearby habitat, he added.

“The key thing is that (the eagles) have to be addressed. It’s going to have to be added (to the project factors) because of the environmental study,” Somerville theorized.

Additionally, in a letter sent to Montgomery County Precinct 3 Commissioner James Noack, Somerville also explained that bald eagles are protected under the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, which mandates that the eagles must not be disturbed to an excessive degree.

Yet, the idea that disturbing the eagles could hamper the project or bring it to a halt was contradicted by Randy Scott as well as an environmental manager with the Howard Hughes Corp., which owns the land the bald eagles are currently nesting on.

Scott, who has been watching the bald eagles for more than a decade and started the Facebook page “Save The Woodlands Eagles,” said that the eagles would not be disturbed by construction on the project, which is less than 1 mile from the proposed underpass.

“The eagles just don’t care. The birds adapt to their environment. They’re able to live and raise a family right there in the midst of a bustling project,” Scott said.

Fred LeBlanc, an environmental manager with the Howard Hughes Corp., added that he doesn’t think the project would be an issue for the birds’ nesting and feeding activities.

“Based on all the development the past 20 years or so around Lake Woodlands, it would probably not be an issue,” LeBlanc said.

The reason for his belief, LeBlanc said, is because he said the birds get most of their food from the nearby Lake Woodlands, and they’ve proven to be resilient while the area around the lake has been developed in the past.

The underpass project is currently in the hands of Noack, who, according to project planners, will make the final decision as to whether the project is submitted to the Houston-Galveston Area Council by the Oct. 31 deadline for consideration for federal funding. Under the proposal, project supporters were hoping to secure as much as $17 million in federal funding if the project was chosen by H-GAC for support. The remaining $7 million portion of the $24 million price tag for the project was expected to be paid for by The Woodlands RUD No. 1.

jane.stueckemann@chron.com