Besieged by the Bay

It's a beautiful, breezy day on Galveston Bay, and Rick Handley is in his element, taking in the world from the deck of neighbor Sonny Butler's home overlooking the water. There are cold beers all around, and Handley is his usual off-color self, joking and taking playful digs at his companions.

But Handley's spirits noticeably sag when the conversation turns to the notices he and his fellow owners of waterfront property in the unincorporated towns of San Leon and Bacliff received last month. The Galveston Central Appraisal District pegged the value of his three lots at almost $220,000 -- a 40 percent increase over the previous year. After an informal hearing with a district appraiser, Handley managed to win a reduction in his land value due to the poor condition of his bulkhead, leaving him with an increase of 23 percent.

A retired plumber who bought his place in 1963, the 72-year-old Handley gets about $300 a month from his plumber's pension to add to his $853 Social Security check. With his expected tax increase, he'll be paying almost a third of his income to cover his property taxes. "It'll make me drink cheaper beer," he jokes, though he acknowledges he'll be pressed to make ends meet.

Compared to some of his neighbors, Handley got off easy. The land value of Sonny Butler's homestead more than doubled, from $34,340 to $77,660. Other property owners saw their assessments more than triple.

A former president of the San Leon-Bacliff-Bayview Chamber of Commerce, about the closest thing to local government in the area, Butler operates a small motel behind his home, which he rents, by the week or month, to workers in the nearby Texas City petrochemical plants. But he's ready to vacate the bay area, and has had the property on the market for four years. He hasn't found a buyer. To Butler, the dramatic jump in assessments is both unfair and out of line with reality.

"It's like taking a sledgehammer and hitting [property owners] on top of the head," says Butler. "If they would write me a check for what they have [the property] appraised for, I'd be gone tomorrow."

Butler isn't the only one. "We really have to do a lot of soul-searching and a lot of budgeting to see if we can stay," says Ann Shaner, who lives with her husband Gene on Cliff Drive in Bacliff. The assessment on their land more than doubled, and that was after they persuaded the Central Appraisal District to reduce the original amount by almost $10,000. The Shaners retired from the construction business, but still have a few years to go before they qualify for Social Security. "We're not employed," Shaner says. "We are trying to make ends meet on our few investments."

Even if the Shaners hang on, it's likely that some of their neighbors won't. And that may mark a turning point for San Leon and Bacliff, two of the last remaining waterfront redoubts on Galveston Bay still inhabited mostly by middle-class homeowners. Situated on a small peninsula that juts into the bay several miles east of League City, the communities are a last bastion of bayfront life the way it used to be, having managed to retain their unpretentious, everyday character. "It's a little country town," says Bacliff's Marion Medlock of the area.

The prospect of struggling to survive or being forced to move has residents frustrated and searching for an explanation. But aside from CAD staffers, who many residents claim have been unresponsive or rude, the residents don't know where to point their fingers. Many have heard the rumor that Merv Griffin has bought property in the area for a casino he wants to build and has influenced the CAD to try and clear the waterfront of middle-class homeowners. Others accuse the local school boards, who have influence in the CAD, of trying to get assessments jacked as high as possible to cover their bloated budgets. Hard evidence to support either theory, however, is lacking.

Medlock has been organizing a group to protest their assessments and has called two meetings to discuss options. "I'm not very political and I don't like doing this," she explains, "but I felt like somebody has to do it, so I jumped in."

The odds are stacked against Medlock and her allies. CAD chief appraiser Ken Wright and his staff defend the dramatic increases, saying that property on the waterfront has been undervalued in past years and that the higher assessments are just the necessary correction required by law. He says he and his staff have spent countless hours working with San Leon and Bacliff property owners to do whatever they can, but they can only do so much. "The sales that we have indicate that waterfront property values are currently more than we previously had them on the rolls for," says Wright. "Substantially more, in some cases."