Eminent domain fight still on: The Facts (Brazoria County TX), 2/18/06

By Velda Hunter

The state [of Texas] already has approved legislation limiting government’s eminent domain powers to take private property when it comes to certain uses, including economic development.

But Wright Gore III, backed by a petition with more than 400 signatures, wants to prohibit eminent domain for private business, including its use to seize property deemed blighted. State law, approved last year, allows use of the tactic for municipal urban renewal activities to eliminate blighted areas.

The petition attempt has drawn some concern from Freeport city officials.

“I’m concerned from the standpoint that what they have proposed is pretty far-reaching,” Freeport City Manager Ron Bottoms said, and using eminent domain for economic development purposes already is prohibited. “We can’t do that anyway. That’s state law and we’re OK with that.”

The petition calls for an initiative in Freeport to prohibit eminent domain, the power of a government to take private land for public use by offering compensation. Gore aims to have the issue put before voters May 13, he said.

“The previous petition was on whether the EDC should be dissolved,” Gore said, referring to the city’s economic development corporation. “We spent a lot of time listening to Freeport voters.”

Some wanted to see the EDC dissolved, while others wanted to see economic development, yet some were divided on the issue, he said.

“But everyone agreed that eminent domain shouldn’t be used to take property from one owner and give it to another,” Gore said. “The issue is much bigger than Western Seafood. … It’s not too late for the rest of Freeport.”

Gore is the son of the president of Western Seafood. The company has been fighting the city and its economic development corporation, which are trying to take the 330 feet the company says are vital to its business. The land would be used for a proposed marina to be built by a private developer with a $6 million loan from the city.

A federal court has granted the city’s request to move forward with condemnation proceedings on the waterfront property, pending the company’s appeal. Currently, the company and the city are in mediation.

“It’s probably the courts that’s going to decide whether the city will take our property,” Gore said.

However, his concern is with the city labeling property as blighted — something he wants to prohibit.

The petition requests an election be called to determine whether Freeport “shall use or authorize the use of eminent domain to take private property without the consent of the owner to be used for private commercial, financial, retail, recreational or industrial enterprise, except for property to be transferred or leased to private entities that are public utilities or common carriers.”

It states City Council could either call an election or pass, without altering, a proposed ordinance, which essentially accomplishes the same thing.

But the move would prohibit the city from using eminent domain to obtain lots as part of its urban renewal project, Bottoms said. In the 1900s, there was a land sale in which five acres were given away and divided into 25-foot lots; however, the land has been passed down through generations and in some instances a single lot has 30 owners, he said.

“The people don’t even know they own it anymore,” Bottoms said, noting the land is vacant. The city has been buying property in that area.

“It’s too far-reaching,” Bottoms said of the petition. “I understand on the surface taking someone’s property just reeks, but there are circumstances when it’s in the greater good of the public.”

Urban renewal is one of them, he said.

Sometimes eminent domain is necessary, Mayor Jim Phillips said. However, he also has an issue with taking people’s houses using eminent domain, something he said Freeport hasn’t done. But it has been used for commercial property, he said.

“They haven’t planned to take any houses or domiciles through eminent domain,” Phillips said. “I think it’s just another attempt by Western Seafood to delay the proceedings going on right now between Western Seafood and the city.”

But not every city official feels the same.

Councilman Larry McDonald hadn’t read the petition, but knew it had been circulated.

“Honestly, I think that would be good,” McDonald said of prohibiting eminent domain for private business. “I don’t believe we should be taking other people’s property and giving it to another private development.”

If the city uses eminent domain to get private property, it should be for public use, McDonald said.

By either passing the proposed ordinance or putting the issue before voters, “City Council now has the chance to prove to Freeport homeowners they have no plans to take their homes,” Gore said.

However, Gore will have to make some corrections to the petition presented this week because Bottoms said it wasn’t valid.

Bottoms wouldn’t give specifics, saying those who filed the petition hadn’t received official notification and he didn’t want them to read about it first in the newspaper.

However, Bottoms said he believes the situation could be corrected quickly enough for the referendum to be placed on the May 13 ballot.

The Facts: http://thefacts.com