THE LAND GRAB BEGINS: Cities Ready to Seize Property
Freeport moves "aggressively" to seize waterfront property
Court's decision empowers the city to acquire the site for a new marina
Houston Chronicle | June 28 2005
By THAYER EVANS
FREEPORT - With Thursday's Supreme Court decision, Freeport officials instructed attorneys to begin preparing legal documents to seize three pieces of waterfront property along the Old Brazos River from two seafood companies for construction of an $8 million private boat marina.
The court, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that cities may bulldoze people's homes or businesses to make way for shopping malls or other private development. The decision gives local governments broad power to seize private property to generate tax revenue.
"This is the last little piece of the puzzle to put the project together," Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips said of the project designed to inject new life in the Brazoria County city's depressed downtown area.
Over the years, Freeport's lack of commercial and retail businesses has meant many of its 13,500 residents travel to neighboring Lake Jackson, which started as a planned community in 1943, to spend money. But the city is hopeful the marina will spawn new economic growth.
"This will be the engine that will drive redevelopment in the city," City Manager Ron Bottoms said.
Lee Cameron, director of the city's Economic Development Corp., said the marina is expected to attract $60 million worth of hotels, restaurants and retail establishments to the city's downtown area and create 150 to 250 jobs.
He said three hotels, two of which have "high interest," have contacted the city about building near the marina.
"It's all dependent on the marina," Cameron said. "Without the marina, (the hotels) aren't interested. With the marina, (the hotels) think it's a home run."
Since September 2003, the city has been locked in a legal battle to acquire a 300-by-60-foot tract of land along the Old Brazos River near the Pine Street bridge as well as a 200-foot tract and 100-foot tract along the river through eminent domain from Western Seafood Co. and Trico Seafood Co.
Eminent domain is the right of a government to take private property for public use upon payment of the fair market value.
The tracts of land would be used for a planned 800- to 900-slip marina to be built by Freeport Marina, a group that that includes Dallas developer Hiram Walker Royall. He would buy the property from the city and receive a $6 million loan from the city to develop the project.
Freeport Marina would then invest $1 million in the project and contribute a 1,100-foot tract of land, valued at $750,000, to it before receiving the loan.
Western Seafood spokesman Wright Gore III said the wholesale shrimp company was disappointed with the Supreme Court decision, but believes the ruling does not apply to the city's eminent domain proceedings.
He said there is a provision in state law that allows residents of a city to a circulate a petition to call a vote on whether the city can take property using eminent domain.
"(This) is far, far from over," Gore said. "(We) would have liked to have seen a victory on the federal level, but it is by no means a settled issue."
Gore said Western Seafood's 30,000-square-foot processing facility, which sits on the 300-by-60-foot tract, would be forced to close if the land were seized.
That facility earns about $40 million annually, and Western Seafood has been in business in Freeport since 1946, he said.
City officials, however, have said the marina will still allow Western Seafood and Trico Seafood, which did not return telephone calls or e-mail Thursday, to operate their facilities.
In August, U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent ruled against a lawsuit filed by Western Seafood seeking to stop the city's eminent domain proceedings. The seafood company then appealed its case to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, a request that initially was denied.
The appeals court then decided it would take the case, but not rule on it until after the Supreme Court made a ruling on the New London, Conn., case.
Freeport Uses Eminent Domain To Claim Private Property
Residents: Proposed Yacht Marina Will Not Help Community
Click2Houston | July 21, 2004
Houston, Texas - A Brazoria County coastal town has big plans to develop a marina to bring in money to the city, but the News2Houston Investigators reported Monday that some residents say all that money will go to the developer and not the community.
In Freeport, local government is forcing businesses to sell their land to build a private yacht marina, the station reported.
For 50 years, loads of Texas gulf shrimp have been bagged and stacked at Western Seafood in Freeport, but if the city gets its way, the familiar look of the boardwalk will change.
"If this property is taken by eminent domain, then we're basically out of business," said Wright Gore, of Western Seafood.
The city of Freeport is trying to buy, or use its power of eminent domain to acquire part of Western Seafood's land, as well as another complex owned by Trico Seafood. The land will not be for a new road or building but instead it will go toward a privately owned yacht marina -- a deal that comes with a $6 million loan from the city. Freeport leaders hope it's the key to bringing new visitors and business to town.
"We feel that we're going to benefit every person who lives in the city of Freeport," Freeport City Councilman Jim Phillips said. "We feel like we're going to benefit the people we hope to attract to the city of Freeport."
The Gore family has owned its property for half a century, and said it is a sweetheart deal for the developer, not residents.
"In this case, it's taking private property and handing it over to another private property owner. In this case, it's our next-door neighbor," Gore said.
But Mayor Jim Barnett argues using eminent domain for a private business is justified because the proposed marina will benefit the public good, not just the developer.
"This is a recognized practice, encouraged by the state of Texas for the benefit of all," Barnett said.
The practice of eminent domain is common across the country.
In five years, a newly-released report by the Institute for Justice http://www.ij.org documented more than 10,000 examples of local and state governments taking land for everything from casinos to condos.
In one Texas case, a streetful of homes was condemned to expand a parking lot for a shopping mall.
"When government steps in and says we have an opinion about your property and says we're going to trump your use of it to give it to another person in the private sector, that's clearly morally flawed," said Barry Klein, head of the Houston Property Rights Association. http://www.hpra.org/
But South Texas College of Law professor Paul McGreal said the Supreme Court has ruled that the term "public good" gives local governments a lot of latitude when dropping the hammer of eminent domain.
"The only way I see it becoming likely to have challenges is if there is some sort of public backlash -- if the public sees this as an abuse of government, overreaching," McGreal said.
In Freeport, the Gores are counting on that public backlash.
"We're taking a stand to fight for our property rights and the property rights of lots of other Freeport residents," Gore said.
Both Western Seafood and Trico Seafood have filed a federal lawsuit against the city of Freeport and the Freeport Economic Development Corp. to stop the land acquisition.
A Galveston federal judge has heard the case and has yet to make a ruling.
On The Net:
Eminent Domain Report: http://www.ij.org/publications/castle/
Residents deride Long Branch mayor's view of their homes
Asbury Park Press | June 22, 2005
Homes are charming, neighborhood safe
Regarding the June 10 story "Long Branch mayor still favors eminent domain," who is Mayor Adam Schneider kidding? Slums?
(At a seminar June 9, Schneider described an oceanfront filled with slums and troubled by high crime as he restated his commitment to using eminent domain to acquire properties for urban redevelopment.)
We live on Ocean Terrace in a charming white bungalow. Our children love our huge piece of property filled with tidied green grass, roses and a vegetable garden. Our piece of property, in close view of the ocean, was grossly under-appraised for only $160,000. I invite the mayor to come see for himself.
"You would not want to walk these streets at night," Schneider said. My husband is a lieutenant with a local police department. Cops do not live with their families in "slums" and unsafe neighborhoods.
We are a family with an income exceeding $100,000 per year. Most of the families in our neighborhoods live in multigeneration-owned homes. Our grandparents know or knew their grandparents. And our children are the fifth generation in this home.
I feel very safe here. My neighbors and I have a very special bond formed through history. Those newer to the neighborhood adapted to this close relationship unique to our area.
What if your older parents lived on the street, on a fixed income? Not only are they taking away your American dream, but stealing it from you. What if it was your mother shaking her head with tears in her eyes wondering where she was going to go? There are a lot of mothers here.
Property rights being violated
It is with great sadness that we residents of the MTOTSA Alliance living on Marine Terrace, Ocean Terrace and Seaview Avenue in Long Branch read the June 10 article "Long Branch mayor still favors eminent domain." The article consisted almost entirely of lies promoted by Mayor Adam Schneider. The Asbury Park Press uncritically reported his lies and abuse of our neighborhood without trying to present a balanced viewpoint that would have included our position.
Schneider's quote, "If elected officials look at urban decay . . . and leave it alone, then they are immoral" was the only statement that contained any truth.
The city contributed to the deterioration of the beachfront area by designating it as a redevelopment zone. This depressed property values and discouraged property owners from maintaining and improving their properties.
The city exacerbated the deterioration by refusing to grant permits for improvements that property owners wanted to make and by trying to require owners to sign waivers that they would not seek compensation for improvements made when the properties were taken for redevelopment.
The city compounded the problems they were causing by failing to repave our streets for the last 30 years and by giving us second-rate service in matters such as street cleaning and snow removal.
The numbers regarding property appraisals quoted by the mayor are incorrect and offensive to people who love their homes and a neighborhood that awakens to the sunrise over the ocean every day. We do not live in slums. We have a viable community. In this community, we support one another and can walk the streets day and night without fear.
How ironic that the speakers before this panel for "smart growth" included all of the developers trying to monopolize the Long Branch beachfront? From the report, it seems as if this was a one-sided panel that could not bring credibility to a position. It sounded like a get-together to publicize their position.
This case stands against the moral principles honored by the Founding Fathers of this country as they made provisions to see that property rights were protected. This case is clear cut in that the city is trying to forcibly take homes and properties and give them to a private developer to build unnecessary expensive housing for people who are wealthier than the current residents. This is an egregious violation of property rights and of common sense.
We will not accept this abuse. We deserve better of the officials elected to serve us. We deserve better from the Asbury Park Press.
Lee and Denise Hoagland
ON BEHALF OF THE MTOTSA ALLIANCE
Don't force residents to move or sell
This is in response to the June 10 article regarding Mayor Adam Schneider's opinion on eminent domain in Long Branch. Once again, the mayor is using the media to provide the public with misinformation. Again, the Asbury Park Press did not attempt to get any information from those living in the homes that Schneider talks about.
Most of the homes in the Marine Terrace-Ocean Terrace-Seaview Avenue area were appraised at far less than what Schneider wants you to believe. He was quoted as saying they were worth $60,000 to $90,000 but that we got appraisals of $500,000 to $600,000. That is ludicrous.
But that is not the issue at hand. The real issue is that no one should be forced to move or sell their property so others can make a profit. That is the only issue and it is a constitutional one at that.
Just look at the oceanfront in Long Branch. Oh, you can't see the ocean through the wall of supposed "public good" buildings.
Our homes are not slums and there was never a time in my 44 years that I couldn't walk or ride my bike in my neighborhood. I used to walk from Ocean Terrace to the boardwalk arcades every night as a kid. Never once was I ever afraid, threatened or approached by anyone.
Schneider and his administration failed this city a long time ago. Bulldozing an entire oceanfront community and displacing people from their homes is what its legacy will be. I hope the mayor will "feel comfortable and confident" in that, using the words he used to describe the redevelopment process.
Lori Ann Vendetti
Nothing can beat the ocean breezes
I spent a week at my house at the Shore during the heat wave. It's something I can rarely do since my husband and I are always working.
Living on the oceanfront is priceless. While everyone I spoke to up north was locked indoors with their air-conditioners blasting, I was at the beach house with no air conditioner and a sweater.
Forget the appraisals. They are worthless. Location, location, location is where it's at.
How will I afford to live on the ocean again? Leave us alone. The reason I bought this house was to get away from the city for a while. Let me enjoy it.
Rita La Conte
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