12/22/2004

Marina slowly becoming visible, viable — The (Brazoria County TX) Facts, 12/22/04

By Elliott Blackburn

[Freeport TX] workers are clearing obstacles between developers and a new marina this month, both physical and litigious.

Demolition teams knocked down five buildings Tuesday and removed trash and other debris from the site of a proposed $8.5 million marina, which city planners hope will feature restaurants, hotels, hundreds of boat slips and lots of revenue.

The real headway might be behind the scenes, as city and business representatives negotiate around a legal stalemate, Freeport Economic Development coordinator Lee Cameron said.

"Hopefully, we'll have it signed before the end of the year," Cameron said.

Two Freeport property owners fought the city's power to seize private property for public use, called eminent domain, with lawsuits filed around the project's original October 2003 start date. The marina has repeatedly stalled in the face of court battles and vocal opposition to a $6 million loan to marina developers and the use of eminent domain.

A lawsuit filed by Wright Gore Jr., owner of the Western Seafood Co. and its roughly 300 feet of coveted waterfront property, is idle in the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Further legal action awaits a decision in another eminent domain case set for argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in February.

The city can build around the property, but the Western Seafood line is destined for lucrative small-boat slips in the marina plan.

"We're sitting here at the mercy of the courts," Freeport City Councilman Jim Phillips said. "We're moving forward with other stages of it, but there's nothing we can really do."

The city might have found a way around a second property owner who has vowed to fight city efforts to take his property.

Freeport is negotiating with J & S Contractors Inc. for more than 1,300 feet of waterfront property, Cameron said. The land would give the marina project contiguous, riverside property down to the guillotine gate and avoid lawsuit co-defendant Trico Shrimp Co.

"With the Glick property, we could actually go around Trico," Cameron said.

Under a new design plan, the city could relocate Trico either farther down the river or to two unspecified sites, Cameron said. Trico owner Dennis Henderson could not be reached to comment on any negotiations Tuesday.

The city would relocate J & S to the other side of the guillotine gate, Cameron said. If the deal is closed, the city could reapply for a permit in January and begin construction in April at the earliest, he said.

The cooperation of J & S wasn't a show of support, said company partner Johnnie Glick. The company decided to work out a deal with the city rather than risk running up court costs fighting it, he said.

"You've got a choice of play ball or you're going to spend all your money to try and keep what's yours," Glick said. "They're going to tax you out or run you out anyway."

As for the marina as a business, other projects, like the Bridge Harbor marina, had fallen flat, Glick said. He doubted a Freeport marina could compete with other established harbors along the coast.

"I think it's the dumbest thing I've ever seen grown men do," Glick said. "I don't feel that this one will ever be booked up solid."

But Phillips said the marina could be the spark the city needs to improve its economic condition.

"We have to have something to bring life to the downtown area," Phillips said. "We have to have something to give people a reason to come to Freeport and spend their money."


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