Freeport Uses Eminent Domain To Claim Private Property - Residents: Proposed Yacht Marina Will Not Help Community



July 21, 2004


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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  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.


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.

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