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Murky Water

When the federal government proposed last summer to create a wildlife refuge for migratory songbirds in the river bottoms southwest of Houston, the political and business leaders of Brazoria County howled in unison. A refuge, they insisted, would destroy property values and bring development to a halt. Leading the protest was state Senator J.E. "Buster" Brown of Lake Jackson. If the bottomlands were going to be saved, Brown argued, it was up to local people to do it, not federal bureaucrats.

Intimidated by the local outcry, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department backed away from its initial support for the proposal, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agreed to cede its authority as lead agency for the refuge to a Texas Senate subcommittee led by Brown. During the past several months, Brown has staged a series of hearings in which he has mercilessly grilled any member of the public who supported the refuge for the Columbia Bottomlands, which are named for the nearby towns of East and West Columbia.

But now that the time has come for Brown to answer a few questions about his own financial interest in land near the proposed refuge, he has become very difficult to find. Despite repeated phone calls and a fax to his office, Brown is not talking about his role in the planned development of an 83.8-acre parcel of property north of Lake Jackson in which he has an ownership stake.

The unfenced, densely wooded acreage is situated in two parcels in the midst of 2,670 acres of flood-prone land east of State Highway 288. According to the city of Lake Jackson's Comprehensive Plan, that land could eventually become Northeast Lake Jackson, an upscale business, research, retail and residential project. Brown's choicest parcel of approximately 34 acres fronts both the four-lane highway and what some locals call "the road to nowhere," a paved dead-end road built by the state in 1986 that provides access to Brown's land and that of other developers. Brown's parcel, according to Lake Jackson's master plan, sits smack in the middle of the proposed retail center and is saturated with wetlands.

Brown bought the nearly 84 acres on the last day of 1986 from Robert J. Hausler of Wallis for $510,000, or a little more than $6,000 an acre. The senator's name appears on the deed as trustee, and he may have other investors in the deal, although it is not clear from public records who they are.

But it seems clear from other records that he is an equity partner in the land. Hausler holds a second lien on the property, and it appears he is to be paid in full once the land is developed. The first lien is held by First National Bank of Lake Jackson, where Brown is a director. Brown financed the purchase with an $80,000 down payment from First National, but according to Brazoria County records, he and his investors have repaid little of it. The lawmaker has been granted nine extensions on the loan, and as of May 1994, the balance was $1,800 more than when he took it out. H.L. "Buddy" Baker, the president of the bank and a good friend of Brown's, did not respond to a request from the Press to explain the bank's generous terms with the state senator.

But then, not many people in Lake Jackson are talking publicly about Brown's business dealings since an enterprising reporter named Sarah Martin began digging into them. At the end of March, she began publishing her findings in a tiny Freeport weekly paper called the Freepress. Titled "Brownwater," Martin's series has been labeled a "witch-hunt" by Brown's longtime business associate, James C. Atkins Jr. A Lake Jackson developer who has both soared and sunk financially, Atkins is reputed to have a genius for finding technological and political solutions to developing the swampy land around Lake Jackson.

Atkins didn't want to talk about Brown's potential shopping center either, but Atkins' name is all over the paperwork. In a June 4, 1990 letter to the Brazoria County Appraisal District protesting the tax evaluation of the property, Atkins wrote, "Senator Brown and myself are partners in the ownership of this property." That didn't seem to cut much ice with the appraisal district, which turned down Atkins' request for a lower value. The next year, Brown handled the appeal himself, indicating on appraisal forms that he was the owner of the property and saying the value should be downgraded because the land could not be developed until it could be drained. Brown eventually succeeded in getting the valuation lowered so that the land he purchased at $6,000 an acre now sits on the tax rolls at $1,500 an acre.

That valuation has irritated some Lake Jackson residents who are insisting that all the property in the potential development be fairly and consistently evaluated. Fred Stapleton, a retiree who lives near Bastrop Bayou a few miles south of Brown's land, has raised so much hell about Brown's valuation that the appraisal district is reconsidering the values of all the land in the development zone, which Stapleton predicts will go up.

 

"If he paid $510,000 for it," Stapleton contends, "then he needs to pay at $510,000. If he doesn't want to pay the taxes, then he ought to let it go [back to the bank]."

That might be premature. After all, Brown and his investors already paid more than $15,000 in back taxes when they took over the property, and if they can just hang on, the land could be worth significantly more than what they agreed to pay for it.

But before the land can be developed, it must be drained. Any plan to drain the area will require cooperation from the federal bureaucracies that Brown and other Republicans have been attacking, including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Fish and Wildlife Service. Those agencies have already protested Lake Jackson's plans to build a golf course on 200 acres of prime bottomlands within the city limits that contain wetlands.

The city enlisted Brown's ally, Congressman Tom DeLay of Sugar Land, to help. The House majority whip inserted language into congressional budget bills that forbade the EPA from hindering the golf course and the Fish and Wildlife Service from acting on the Columbia Bottomlands refuge. The Republican action against the refuge has been widely regarded as retaliation for Fish and Wildlife's opposition to Lake Jackson's golf course. But it also seems to have been a warning to federal agencies to cooperate with Lake Jackson's development projects or face further obstructions to the planned refuge.

Although DeLay has characterized the proposed refuge as a "land grab," in its draft proposal, the Fish and Wildlife Service declared its intent to gather land only from willing sellers and donors. Brown's land is not included in the service's mapping of the bottomlands, which follows the course of three major rivers: the Brazos, the San Bernard and the Colorado.

Because the Lake Jackson area sits on a low coastal shelf penetrated by bayous and is close to the Brazos, hardly anything can be built there without drainage improvements. The city itself sits behind a levee, and further development to the north near Brown's property and the surrounding development zone will require anywhere from $30 million to $60 million worth of flood control improvements that may damage downstream property owners.

The city of Lake Jackson has commissioned a flood control study that calls for digging a massive ditch to divert flood waters from the Brazos into Bastrop Bayou, a bayou already subject to floods during heavy rainfalls. Downstream residents fear further flooding if such a ditch is built. Environmentalists fear that such a project would dump tons of Brazos River silt into Bastrop Bayou, where it will pour into Bastrop and Christmas bays, killing the only sea grasses left in the Galveston estuary. The commissioners of the Angleton and Velasco drainage districts have opposed Lake Jackson's plans and are calling for further study.

But Brown is in a good position to take care of that opposition. When the Legislature convenes next January, he will be chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, which is responsible for environmental legislation that passes through the Senate. He has proposed writing legislation to create a flood control district for the Bastrop Bayou watershed that would supersede the Angleton and Velasco drainage districts. (He has already helped pass similar legislation for the Clear Creek watershed near Pearland.) The new flood control district could issue bonds to create the flood control improvements. Its first set of commissioners would be appointed by Brazoria County Judge John Willy, another close ally of Brown's.

After ten years, Brown's investment still looks a long way from paying off. And there are many more questions about it that need to be answered. For example, Brown did not declare an ownership interest in the land under the real estate category of the personal financial disclosure statement he filed last year with the Texas Ethics Commission. Nor does Brown list the land as a real estate holding on earlier disclosure filings. State law requires that "the individual filing the statement shall report a description of real property by the number of lots or number of acres, as applicable, in each county, the name of the county, and the names of all persons retaining an interest in the property ...."

Going back to at least 1990, Brown has reported an interest in a limited partnership named L.J. Freeway Ltd., which could possibly refer to the land on the Lake Jackson Freeway, as State Highway 288 is known locally. But that only raises more questions. The Secretary of State's office confirms that L.J. Freeway Ltd. was never registered with the state until March 4. The general partners for L.J. Freeway are listed as James E. Brown and James C. Atkins Jr. The partnership was registered only a few days after reporter Sarah Martin interviewed Atkins about his business dealings with Brown. Why would Brown declare a limited partnership on his financial filings for years, yet never register it with the state until a few weeks ago?

 

The state requires elected officials to file financial disclosure statements in order to expose potential conflicts of interest. But if Brown and Atkins never registered their partnership with the Secretary of State, it would be impossible for anyone to know what L.J. Freeway Ltd. consists of, and whether it might present a conflict for Brown. The senator's business dealings are murky indeed, murky as the Brazos River water that Brown needs so desperately to keep out of his real estate.


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