Developer offers second site for new Hidalgo County courthouse

EDINBURG — A farmer-turned-developer here wants to gift Hidalgo County 20 acres of what he calls prime real estate off of Highway 281 to build the new county courthouse, but his offer comes as the project continues to pick up speed at its current proposed location.

Kent Burns, a third-generation farmer in the Rio Grande Valley, wants to give the county a portion of his development dubbed La Sienna. Located in Edinburg near the intersection of Highway 281 and Monte Cristo Road, the 726-acres development comprises three residential subdivisions and a commercial area that is waiting for businesses to arrive.

All of the infrastructure is in place, as well as the resaca, which will serve as a water attraction similar to San Antonio’s Riverwalk, but on a smaller scale.

Burns has been courting big ticket companies in hopes of landing an anchor, but hasn’t had any luck yet. So his offer to gift about $4.3 million worth of land, though generous, would also serve to benefit his development.

Burns, however, believes his proposal will benefit the entire county through the creation of a new tax base spurred by economic development in the area, and contends it might save taxpayers some money in terms of logistics, specifically, costs associated with demolition, staging and traffic control.

“Downtown — where they are at — is just not big enough for this project,” Burns said Thursday. “You’re going to jam a big, beautiful building to another building, and then you’re going to basically tear up the city for a number of years, and it’s just going to create a big mess. We’re offering a better solution to that.”

  1. Where should the new Hidalgo County Courthouse be built?

His location is poised for growth, he said, and will one day become the center of the city. The Hidalgo County Regional Mobility Authority is currently working on plans for Highway 68, which will serve as a loop that will cut just north of the property on Farm-to-Market Road 490. Monte Cristo Road will also eventually take travelers from Edinburg straight to the second causeway at South Padre Island.

Burns outlined his reasoning in separate meetings with Hidalgo County Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu, Precinct 4 Commissioner-elect Ellie Torres and Richard Cortez, the Democratic nominee for Hidalgo County judge, in hopes of swaying the elected leaders and the Democratic candidate to build on his land, which is ready for construction.

“It’s always fair to listen to somebody else’s perspective, especially someone who is offering an option like Mr. Burns,” Cantu said.

But his proposal might not be enough of an incentive to pump the brakes on a project that appears to be well on its way. Just this week, the county’s construction teams agreed on the schematic designs for the new courthouse and authorized the architects to move forward to the design development phase. As it stands, the project is 3 percent under budget, with an estimated construction cost of approximately $113 million — though that number is subject to change.

The county is currently in talks with the Texas Department of Transportation to close that portion of the road in order to maximize the square footage of the courthouse square, which extends about four city blocks.

“Fifty years from now, it’s going to be the same problem again,” Burns’ real estate broker Adrian Arriaga said. “Here, at least you have room to expand.”

Cantu, however, believes there is plenty of space to work with.

“I don’t think staging would be an issue,” he said. “Would there be a little more traffic? For sure, but I don’t think traffic by itself would be enough to move the courthouse.”

And as far as land is concerned, the county recently paid $1 million to purchase a reverter clause from the family who donated the land more than six decades ago.

“The land is ours, and it’s already paid for,” Cantu said. “To me, those are equal. One doesn’t offset the other.”

Cortez agreed.

“If the city of Edinburg wants to say, ‘I will give you $30 million to leave it where it is’ — that adds value to the current location that the Burns location doesn’t have,” he said. “If Burns has something other to offer than land … then it’s up to the county judge and commissioners to evaluate the pros and cons and make the best decision for the future use of the courthouse.”

  1. Hidalgo County Courthouse project through the years

Whether or not Edinburg will contribute the money, however, is yet to be seen. Officials there are still mulling their options.

Cortez declined to give his opinion of the proposal, saying he did not have adequate time to even reach one during his 30-minute meeting with Burns. He also felt it was not his place to comment one way or the other “out of respect” for the elected officials in place.

“My position is very simple. I’m simply a candidate for county judge, not the county judge-elect,” he said. “So I have another election to worry about, but if I were, I would analyze it and give it serious consideration.”

Burns’ offer deserves to be acknowledged, Cortez added.

“You have to listen to them,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you have to make the best judgement, and right now, that’s in the hands of county judge Ramon Garcia and the commissioners.”

Torres, who will take office in January, did not respond to a request for comment.

nlopez@themonitor.com