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Corte leads charge for landowner rights

San Antonio Express-News | June 29, 2005
By Lisa Sandberg

AUSTIN — In the early 1940s, Wright Gore took everything he owned and put it into a seafood company in Freeport, along the banks of the Brazos River about 56 miles south of Houston.

The company grew and prospered over the decades and today, Western Seafood, still a family-owned business, employs 56 people and takes in roughly $40 million a year stocking restaurant kitchens around the country.

But that doesn't impress Freeport officials who are trying to condemn the property out of a belief the public would be better served with an upscale marina on the prime stretch of waterfront the seafood plant occupies.

Eminent domain, the right of governmental entities to seize land for the public good, has been around since the nation's founding. But a 5-4 ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of local governments to condemn private property for more private purposes than the building of highways or other public infrastructure.

Riding a wave of anger over the ruling, 50 Texas lawmakers have lined up to support a proposed constitutional amendment authored by Rep. Frank Corte Jr., R-San Antonio, to limit local governments' power to exercise eminent domain for purely economic reasons.

Corte said Tuesday he's still drafting the bill. And he can't get it passed unless Gov. Rick Perry agrees to add it to an ongoing special legislative session. It would require super majorities of the House and Senate and statewide voter approval.

Perry has said he won't add anything to the special session until lawmakers agree on school funding and tax reforms.

The high court ruled that the city of New London, Conn., could condemn houses in a working-class area and sell the property to businesses so long as the city determined a public benefit.

Similarly, Freeport has gone to court to force Western Seafood out so a developer can build a 560-slip marina.

"It's underused and undervalued," Freeport Mayor Jim Phillips said of the property.

Corte said the Supreme Court's ruling amounted to an erosion of property rights. But it did allow states to decide limits on eminent domain power, so Texas should act to stop that erosion, he said.

"To take one's property and put someone else there because the city would get more money is wrong," Corte said.

Glen Heath, an 84-year-old widower in Arlington, knows all about the issue. His beige two-bedroom house on Crestwood Drive, which he bought in 1949 and raised a family in, is in the path of a $650 million stadium being planned for the Dallas Cowboys.

"We've been kicked around quite a bit," Heath said by telephone.

Corte said his legislation wouldn't likely affect Heath's situation since the city and not a private landowner would actually own the land, though the Cowboys' owner will build the stadium and maintain it.

"If a city owns and manages it, it's a different situation," Corte said.

Heath said he didn't see much of a distinction between being a city and a private firm forcing him out. All the same, he said he was now resigned to moving and was hoping to just get a fair price.

Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said homeowners would be paid fair-market rates, plus an additional $22,500. Renters would receive $5,000 cash.

Meanwhile, Freeport's mayor denied claims by a grandson of Western Seafood's founder that moving would spell the company's death because it would block access to the water. The company could move, Phillips said, but was resisting in order to broker a better deal for itself in court.

"We're not going to put them out of business," Phillips said. "This is strictly a matter of money."

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