By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
The Port of Houston Authority is apparently worried about growing opposition to its planned billion-dollar Bayport project. And it has gotten its favorite errand boy to do something about it.
State Senator Jon Lindsay, who took a two-year, $120,000 consulting job with the Port after corruption allegations chased him from his Harris County judge post in 1993, has introduced a bill that basically tells the cities around the Bayport project to drop dead.
Senate Bill 1502 would allow the Port to condemn any piece of property it wants without first getting the approval of the city where that property is located.
Since the Port will need to purchase, either through negotiation or eminent domain, hundreds of acres to build its proposed $1.2-billion container facility north of Seabrook, the question of whether it can condemn that land on its own is important.
With Seabrook City Council already on record opposing the project, which would include a massive rail yard and up to 7,000 trucks a day delivering containers to a mile-and-a-half-long wharf, the Port may need the end run around municipalities.
"I just believe that if we have one bargaining chip in this game, [condemnation] is it," says Seabrook City Councilman Tom McCollum, a leader in the fight against Bayport. "I have that one chip and [the Port's] trying to take it away from me."
Lindsay's bill would strike language that declares, "No right of way may be condemned though any part of an incorporated city or town without the consent of the lawful authorities of that city or town."
The Texas Municipal League, a coalition that lobbies in Austin on behalf of city governments, has come out against Lindsay's bill. "We'd oppose any bill that would allow any other government entity to come in and condemn property without the approval of the city involved," says Frank Sturzl, the group's executive director.
Lindsay's office didn't return calls seeking comment, but the senator may seek to ease TML's concerns by amending the bill to limit it to the Bayport project.
That, of course, won't ease Seabrook's concerns.
The 9,700 residents of Seabrook were blindsided by news of the scope of the Port's proposed Bayport project, details of which first began to emerge last summer. [See "Rocky Landing," by Richard Connelly, July 2]. After several contentious meetings with Port officials, the city council decided to "clarify" its zoning map for the area where the project called for rail lines and a marshaling yard.
The clarification declared that areas zoned for light industry can't have rail lines or marshaling yards. Not surprisingly, Port officials took offense and began work on SB 1502.
Port officials wouldn't return calls by the Press, but the agency sent a team of staffers and representatives to Austin in late March to lobby the Harris County delegation.
There are indications the Port may have a tough selling job ahead: The bill has yet to be scheduled for a hearing, and no House sponsor has emerged. The lack of a sponsor or a similar bill in the House means even if 1502 passes the Senate it must start at square one in the House, rather than moving on a parallel track.
McCollum and his allies are pushing hard with a David-and-Goliath argument. "This is about taking rights away from a city, and I don't think anyone [in the House] wants to put their name to that," he says. "Lindsay's just doing that because he's paying back the Port."
Opponents to the Bayport project are exploring several other strategies. They've already forced the Port to do an environmental impact statement (Port officials have said, somewhat disingenuously, that they chose on their own to do an EIS rather than a more limited "environmental assessment.")
They also plan to fight the Port's November bond election, where the agency will ask voters to approve more than $300 million in bonds to finance the first phase of the project. Already plans are being made to sue the port over a $810,000 contract it has awarded to an Austin public relations firm.
The Port says the contract is intended to promote the agency in a general way. Opponents say the PR firm will work on getting the bond package passed, and government agencies aren't allowed to do that. That's why such groups as Friends of HISD are formed to take contributions and buy ads supporting bond packages.
The Port, which claims to generate more than $1 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues, wields considerable political clout and is a daunting opponent to take on. But McCollum says that if the three or four grassroots groups opposing Bayport can find a way to work together, the project can be stopped.
Although Port officials have adamantly insisted that the proposed project is the only way to ensure future growth, McCollum thinks that organized opposition could force the agency to look to locate the massive facility elsewhere. Texas City is aggressively seeking a container port, but Port officials say that location is too far away.
"I think we can stop it and make them look at other alternatives," McCollum says.