By Thayer Evans
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.
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