Besieged by the Bay

Beset by skyrocketing tax assessments and wary of encroaching development, property owners in San Leon-Bacliff wonder if their "poor man's Riviera" may soon go the way of other waterfront zones along Galveston Bay.

Ed Jones, who has lived on Cliff Drive for the past 20 years and appealed his own assessment, puts it another way. "They can prove anything they want to with figures and a computer," Jones says.

As for why Jean Helton didn't get the same benefits as Jardina, Daum says that her formal appeal before the appraisal review board is yet to come, and that she may end up getting her assessment adjusted then. "Her case," says Daum, "is not resolved yet."

This is all news to Helton, who says she's heard nothing about her prospects before the review board, or even when her hearing will take place.

Whether she'll actually obtain satisfaction remains to be seen. After a similar unpleasant experience at his informal hearing, Ed Jones hoped to persuade the review board his property had been overvalued. Jones made his appearance several weeks later after his request to postpone the date was rejected. "I was unprepared," he says, and at that point the result was inevitable. "I was told to take it or leave it."

After a formal appeal before the appraisal review board, a taxpayer's only recourse is in civil court, a step beyond the reach of most San Leon and Bacliff residents. And though the CAD has made a number of small adjustments to individual properties, there's no sign of backing away from the overall increase.

The CAD is also insulated from the democratic process: Even if the taxpayers wanted to, there's almost no way to directly affect district policies. The chief appraiser answers only to the CAD board, which consists of five members chosen by the cities, towns and school districts in Galveston County. Because of the arcane manner (unique to the Galveston CAD) in which board members are selected -- by giving extra weight to school districts with big budgets -- four of the five CAD trustees also serve on area school boards, none of which include San Leon or Bacliff.

Only tax assessor-collector Chuck Wilson, who is elected countywide, can be called to account by voters. And Wilson says that practically speaking, he has little authority. "I find myself accepting the policy set by the chief appraiser," Wilson explains.

The residents' sense of helplessness has soured them on the CAD -- and on government in general -- and it's spawned a number of conspiracy theories to explain the revaluations. Some believe that the increase was ordered to counteract the property tax cap and rollback initiatives that circulated through the Legislature this spring, threatening the overall county tax base. Others think the CAD is in cahoots with developers to drive people off their land and open it up for a future casino or other massive project.

Wilson has his doubts about the hefty assessment increase in San Leon and Bacliff. A gregarious politician with a salty tongue and a penchant for self-promotion, he isn't sure there have been enough sales on the San Leon and Bacliff waterfront for the CAD to identify a trend, and he questions the fairness of doubling or tripling values on senior citizens and others on tight budgets.

But Wilson, who says he knows "every crook and crook wannabe" in Galveston County, doubts there's any conspiracy afoot.

"San Leon might have gotten more beat on than anybody else," he says, "but everybody in the county is pissed off."

Ill will toward government is nothing unusual in San Leon and Bacliff. The sentiment dates at least back to the early 1980s, when tensions between American and Vietnamese shrimpers that had been building for several years erupted in violence. With the help of the federal government, a number of Vietnamese refugees resettled on Galveston Bay in the late 1970s, borrowed money for shrimp boats and began competing head-to-head with the locals. Angered by what they claimed were below-the-belt fishing tactics by the newcomers (and dwindling revenues), the natives grew restless. Three Vietnamese boats and a home in nearby Seabrook were torched. The Klan got involved. During one confrontation, a Vietnamese shrimper shot and killed an adversary; the gunman pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.

Hordes of reporters descended on San Leon, Seabrook and surrounding towns. Playing up the Klan angle, which was actually more sideshow than integral to the conflict, the newspaper and television reports portrayed area residents as bigoted rednecks, an image that still stings. Several people who said they'd been burned by the media during the shrimp battles refused to talk to the Press for this story.

For the most part, the Vietnamese and Texan shrimpers have ironed out their differences, though mistrust remains. The two groups even joined forces in 1994 to protest proposed state government restrictions on Gulf Coast shrimping. But Vietnamese shrimp boats and wholesalers now dominate the waterfront, a source of resentment for those who feel pushed out. These days, though, their vitriol is directed as much at state and federal government, which they blame for stacking the deck against them.

From such seeds of frustration spring such anti-government groups as the Republic of Texas, which, in fact, has a few members in the vicinity. After Leonard Clark Cooper's waterfront property was seized and sold for nonpayment of taxes, Cooper fired off a series of threatening letters and legal notices to the new owner and others demanding justice under the flag of the Republic. "You do not own my property," Cooper wrote, "but you will feel like you paid for it several times over and all who participate in this scam will feel likewise." Cooper's current whereabouts are unknown, though Jerry Daum says he's not in the area. But Daum is taking no chances. "I won't send any appraisers over there," he says.

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