Fight Over STORM's Lease Has Led to Restraining Orders
Photo by Daniel Salazar
The fight over who controls the leases in Galveston Bay is still rolling along. Now it's being duked out through restraining orders lobbed at both the state, which had planned to move some oysters out of privately leased waters in Galveston Bay and into the public reefs, and STORM, the private company that insists it has leased that huge swathe of oyster reefs.
Back in early 2013, oystermen Tracy Woody and his father-in-law, Ben Nelson, the owners of Jeri's Seafood, set up a separate company, STORM, as we wrote in our January feature, "Murky Waters." That summer, word got out that the Chambers Liberty Counties Navigation District had granted STORM a 30-year lease for more than 23,000 acres of submerged land, paying $1.50 per acre to start with for the property without getting the public's attention until the lease was signed and approved in April 2014. The lease was granted despite the fact that the CLCND was giving STORM rights to land that was already privately leased through the state.
Since the news broke last summer, Woody and Nelson and their allies have been fighting against Lisa Halili, one of the owners of Prestige Oysters, and other people who hold private leases in the waters being claimed by STORM. Woody and Nelson say they are doing this because Texas oystering is in danger and they're the only ones who can save it. Their opponents say this is a land grab designed to allow Jeri's Seafood to control a huge portion of the state's oyster reefs.
So the fight over STORM's lease has bounced all over the place, from a bill filed during the 2015 state legislative session that would have changed the rules governing what entities have the right to lease submerged land like the land in Galveston Bay (and ardently opposed by the anti-STORM crowd), to lawsuits filed by both the state and regular old STORM opponents. Lately judges have been dealing with the STORM issue.
The State had given oyster producers just two days in early October to transfer oysters to safer waters to protect public safety, according to a release from anti-STORM spokesman Wayne Dolcefino, but Judge Randy McDonald turned around and issued a restraining order to stop the entire process a few weeks ago. But then McDonald signed off to let the case be transferred from Chambers County to Travis County, which meant the plans to transfer oysters out of STORM waters to public oyster reefs were back on, as of last week.
However, Judge Chap Cain, another district judge in Chambers County, turned around and put the restraining order back on, claiming Texas Parks and Wildlife issued permits to transplant the oysters on October 13, before the original restraining order had ended, according to the release.
Meanwhile, District Judge Lonnie Cox, in Galveston, issued a restraining order to keep STORM employees from taking oysters out of Galveston Bay. So far the restraining orders are keeping both sides from oystering in the contested waters, and it looks as if it will be that way for a while to come. We're betting at least the oysters are happy about it.