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Mixed Messages

Seabrook's Riley was stunned over the initial billboard dispute.
Monica Fuentes

Robin Riley had seen the recent blizzard of what he considers pro-Bayport advertising by the Port of Houston Authority. He and other opponents of the plans for a major expansion of port terminals to Bayport decided it was time to battle back.

As mayor of Seabrook, Riley led the effort by that city to secure billboard space of its own for anti-Bayport messages. Based on the community's complaints about the visual and environmental blight it fears the project would bring, the ads were to read: "The Port of Houston wants to CHANGE YOUR VIEW." They would also provide a number to call for more information.

However, when Seabrook tried to rent the billboards last month, Clear Channel Outdoors (CCO) turned the city down. The company insisted that a political disclaimer would be required. Riley says he was dumbfounded -- he pointed out that the port ads carried no such disclaimers and that Seabrook's message was not a political ad. "There's no election," he said.

Similar problems confronted the Galveston Bay Conservation & Preservation Society, a group fighting the Bayport project. Board member Nancy Edmondson, the mayor of Shoreacres, says the group had seemingly routine plans to assess the effects of the port's project on area roadways. But when it tried to hire several Houston firms to do a traffic impact study, no one wanted anything to do with them, she says.

"We could not get a Houston firm to work for us. They said that, politically, they could not work against the Port of Houston," Edmondson says. "There's $1.2 billion in contracts at stake here, and they all want a piece of the pie."

Those and similar disputes show that, some five years after the proposal for Bayport was first unveiled, the project remains the biggest -- and hottest -- political issue in southeast Harris County.


The Port of Houston Authority intends to build a 1,043-acre container port and cruise line terminal in Bayport. After a lengthy battle, the project now appears certain to be permitted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which issued a favorable environmental impact statement in May.

But a lawsuit filed last week by an odd coalition of tree-hugging liberals and suburban conservatives claims the corps study is hopelessly flawed and subverts federal environmental laws. And several Bayport-area community leaders say the port is buying influence through a multimedia ad campaign and with the lure of fat contracts associated with the $1.2 billion project.

Taylor Lake Village Mayor Pro Tem Larry Tobin says, "You can see all the engineering and construction firms moving up with their snouts to the trough." The port "can't even pay their own debt service, but they've got plenty of money to pour into advertising to talk about how well they do." Tobin believes the port is spending taxpayer money to sell his constituents on a project they don't want.

The port is prohibited by law from advertising but has spent several million dollars in past years for what is termed a "public information and awareness campaign." The port's executive director, Tom Kornegay, says no tax monies went toward that. "We make revenues off our operations. The law allows us to use a certain portion for promotion and development." Some of that promoting touts the potential benefits of the Bayport project.

The port spent nearly half a million dollars on media in 1999 -- a more-than-threefold increase from the previous year -- when $387 million in bonds for the Bayport project were approved by Harris County voters. But County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia's Precinct 2, which includes Bayport, voted overwhelmingly against the bond issue. Garcia has been an outspoken opponent of the Bayport project, and more than one politician there has had to find a new job because of the controversy.

Former Seabrook city councilmember Margaret Kidd-Duncan quit office after a bizarre phone call to a Seabrook police dispatcher earlier this year. She said that police were harassing her because she was "pro-port" and resigned after her profanity-laced tirade was made public.

Seabrook's former mayor was recalled because he did not oppose the Bayport project strongly enough. Mayor Riley led his city to take a pro-active stance against what he believes is a disinformation campaign by the port authority.

Seabrook will likely join the cities of Shoreacres and Taylor Lake Village, the Houston Yacht Club, PISCES (a seafood professionals' organization) and several environmental groups headed by the Galveston Bay Conservation & Preservation Society in the lawsuit against the Corps of Engineers. But the real target is the Port of Houston Authority. Kornegay says the authority will likely join the corps in fighting the suit.

Attorney Jim Blackburn, chairman of the preservation society, contends that the environmental impact statement "didn't tell the truth, and it didn't consider all the information." Blackburn accuses the corps of improperly classifying wetlands areas and not evaluating other sites that would be less intrusive and less expensive. A Harris County study, initiated by Commissioner Garcia, concurs. It determined that the best site for a container port was at Spillman's Island.

The port's Kornegay says that study is flawed, and the legal battle will likely devolve into mind-numbing testimony by dueling experts.

Blackburn says his group had to resort to a lawsuit because port officials are not listening to people. "It's sort of like 'If you're big enough to do something about it, do it.' They think they know everything." Kornegay disputes that and says, "Jim Blackburn told me two or three years ago they were going to sue."

Edmondson says about 90 percent of Shoreacres' 1,500 residents are against the project. "There are houses in La Porte that their back fence would back up to the supertankers. We're also downwind, and we'll be the ones that can smell it, see it and hear it."

Kornegay says they should've thought about that before moving into an industrial area. "There are three chemical plants there already. Would they rather have another chemical plant there?" He likens Bayport-area critics to people who "move next door to a bar and then start complaining about the noise."

Kornegay says port officials have made significant design changes after hearing citizens' complaints. Those include a three-mile-long, 20-foot-high berm around the terminal to muffle noise, "dark sky" lighting that will not be visible from nearby residences, and retention ponds to keep any sludge from running into Galveston Bay. He says, "We set the bar so high on environmental standards that other port directors bitch at me."

Blackburn scoffs at that. "I personally think that nothing less than the future of Galveston Bay is at stake right now." His group hopes to get a fair shake in federal court later this year, which is more than they say they've gotten from some businesses and others in the area.

However, Clear Channel Outdoors disputes Riley's claims of dual billboard standards involving the port or the Bayport project. As for the argument that political disclaimers were required, Houston CCO president Michelle Costa says her division has no interaction with the Clear Channel TV and radio divisions that sold airtime to the port. "We're not even in the same building," she says. "We were just trying to be safe."

The billboard company did reverse its position after receiving a letter from Seabrook's city attorney that hinted at legal action. The billboards went up last week, without the disclaimers.

The bay society managed an end run around the freeze-out by local consulting firms regarding the traffic study. The group ended up hiring a Dallas firm for that work.

Blackburn himself may have been one of the first targets by the pro-Bayport forces, his supporters say. He was appointed by former mayor Bob Lanier to serve on the Houston Air Excellence and Leadership Project in 1997, but says Mayor Lee Brown fired him from the project in 1999 after his opposition to Bayport.

"This is what comes with the turf of opposing the port," Blackburn says. "They make you pay."


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