Eminent domain top Freeport issue: The Facts (Brazoria County TX), 4/17/05

By Michael Wright

Three of the men running to replace longtime Freeport Mayor Jim Barnett agree the city has the right to use eminent domain to condemn land planned for a new marina on the Old Brazos River, though they disagree on whether that time has come. However, a fourth candidate said taking land for the benefit of a private investor is a gross violation of property rights.

Jim Phillips, Steve Upton and Lon Siddall expressed varying support for eminent domain, the right of the government to take private land for public use by paying fair market value, though Upton and Siddall both said it should be used only as a last resort of negotiations in good faith. Clan Cameron, however, said government had no business taking private property unless it’s going to be used for a public project.

“For the city to take land from one private owner and give it to another, that’s not right,” said Cameron, 40, a clean room coordinator for EPD, Inc. Cameron said the city has a marina at Bridge Harbor and doesn’t need to fund a new one for the benefit of private interests. “We already have an existing business,” he said.

The city, through its Economic Development Corporation, plans to loan $6 million to developers to build a new marina along the waterfront. The economic development corporation has moved to condemn land that the owners don’t want to sell, then turn around and sell that land to the developers.

Western Seafood Co. is fighting the city and the Freeport Economic Development Corporation for 330 feet of waterfront property along the Old Brazos River that belongs to the 50-year-old business.

Both sides are awaiting the results of a similar case before the United States Supreme Court. Phillips said condemning the land is acting in the interest of the city as a whole. “It’s going to benefit everyone else who lives in the city,” he said. “That’s what economic development is all about. It may be good for one person, but it’s also good for all the people that reside in the city.”

Phillips said the city isn’t technically condemning any land. “We’re not taking private property,” he said. “The Economic Development Corporation is taking private property. It’s a separate entity established through the half-cent sales tax.”

In fact, the Economic Development Corporation’s board handles tax money and reports to City Council. Siddall, 54, a former councilman who sits on the board, said eminent domain should be used only as a last resort. “I believe in eminent domain and I also believe it can be used in the wrong way,” said Siddall, who works in emergency services and security for Dow Chemical Co. “When nothing else happens, then yes, eminent domain is the tool. I don’t believe it’s happened here.”

Upton, 48, a sheriff’s deputy who works in the Brazoria County Detention Center, said he also believes eminent domain should only be used as the ultimate weapon in this battle in case negotiations fail. “If it fails and the marina is the best thing for the city and the only way we could get the property is eminent domain, then maybe we have to use it,” he said.

Phillips, who has served 13 years on council, sandwiched around a term as Brazoria County Judge from 1991 to 1995, said the city’s overall economic development is his top priority. “We’re right in the middle of doing something we should have done 20 years ago, and I don’t want to walk away from it,” he said. He said he’s proud of the city’s recent beautification efforts and hopes to see them continue.

Upton, a former justice of the peace, said he wants to create a more citizen-friendly environment at City Hall. “I want to get the city turned around and get it back in the hands of the citizens instead of the people who have their own interests,” Upton said. “I think it’s going to take getting the citizens aware that when something comes up you have the right to address the council and ask questions.”

Siddall also said council needs to be more responsive to residents. “I hope to make an attempt to improve communications from City Hall to the citizens,” he said. “It’s lacking and it’s caused lots of animosity in Freeport. When people call you, you just don’t ignore them. People are feeling like they’re not getting represented.”

Cameron, who lost a bid for a council seat last year, said the city needs to focus on basic services. “I’ve been basically walking the streets and talking to the citizens,” Cameron said. “They say, ‘This is an old city.’” He said his top three priorities would be flood control, which he believes to be inadequate, improving the city’s sewers and its streets.

The Freeport mayor serves a two-year term and makes $150 a month.

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