Beaumont State Rep Files Oyster Reef "Land Grab" Bill

Last week, just before the filing deadline, state Rep. Joe Deshotel filed House Bill 3335, a bill innocously described as "relating to the regulation of oyster resources." However, there's a lot more to HB 3335 than that. With this bill, the lease for a controversial project, viewed by supporters as an attempt to save the Texas oyster reefs and by opponents as a bid to control the bulk of the Texas oyster reefs, could become legal.

We're talking about Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management, commonly known as STORM.

STORM is the brainchild of Tracy Woody and his father-in-law Ben Nelson, the owners of Jeri's Seafood, a company that oysters from Smith Point, as we wrote in a feature story earlier this year. Back in early 2014, Woody and Nelson set up a separate company, Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (aka STORM). Then they obtained a 30-year lease through the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District for more than 23,000 acres of submerged land in Trinity and Galveston bays. And then, after they had secured the lease, Woody and Nelson started informing the other oystermen who held oyster reef leases in those waters that STORM now held the rights to that submerged land and the oyster reefs on it.

Since then there's been a bitter and public fight between Nelson and Woody and the rest of the oystermen, including the Halili family, owners of Prestige Oyster Company. Woody will tell anyone who asks that both he and Nelson knew going into this deal that it would be controversial. Woody had lawyers tear the lease contract apart and examine it from every angle before he filed the lease to make sure it would hold up in the inevitable court battle that is coming.

However, Woody and Nelson have also been working another angle on the lease. Sitting in the kitchen of Jeri's Seadfood back in January Woody acknowledged that he was shopping around for a state legislator who would agree to file a bill that would work around any questions people had about STORM's lease. "I think what we need is to have things codified and clarified about what the rules really are," Woody told us back then.

Last week, the day before the filing deadline, Deshotel, a Democrat from Beaumont, filed a bill that would potentially give STORM's lease the "clarity" that Woody is seeking. The way the law reads now, all oyster beds not designated private are public, but that would change with HB 3335, which reads:

An oyster bed or reef that is located on non-state-owned submerged land or on submerged land that is subject to the rights of a riparian owner under Section 76.004, is not subject to location by the department.

Basically, what this means is that the person who owns the land along the water owns that submerged land. And thus:

A person who is a riparian owner with exclusive rights with respect to the use of a creek, bayou, lake, or cove under subsection (a) or (b) is protected against trespass in the same manner as a freeholder. This subsection applies only as long as the owner clearly and distinctly marks the boundaries of the private oyster bed with buoys or other permanent markers easily visible above the surface of the water and maintains those markers in their correct positions.

Or, to translate, the person who owns that land gets to accuse anyone who is in the water or on the land of trespassing as long as the owners have gotten out there and clearly marked the area.

Texas Parks and Wildlife officials have found that STORM's lease is technically valid, as leases go, but still legally no good because they say the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District didn't have the right to give STORM the lease in the first place, because the submerged land belongs to the state. Woody and Nelson, naturally, don't agree with that stance. It's no surprise, thus, that this bill has language that will make it totally okay for navigation districts to write a lease like the one that STORM already holds. And it's even less surprising that the whole thing "applies to a lease for district-owned submerged land for the creation of cultivated oyster beds or for the protection of natural oyster beds, regardless of when the lease was executed."

STORM issued a release after the bill was filed with Woody reiterating his stance that this entire project is about restoring the oyster reefs and the environment.

"This bill will enable environmentally conscious landowners like STORM to build thousands of acres of new oyster reefs, which will lead to cleaner water, better habitat for marine life and a stronger oyster industry," Woody states. "By leasing submerged land to environmentally responsible groups like STORM, navigation districts throughout the state can be better stewards of our natural resources while earning a better return for taxpayers."

However, Lisa Halili, one of the founders and owners of Prestige Oysters, and one of the leading opponents to STORM, was less than thrilled to see the bill filed.She says that the environmentalism Woody and Nelson tout is just a cover for a land grab of the public oyster reefs. "Not only does this bill validate the [STORM] lease, it takes the authority from Texas Parks and Wildlife and puts it in the hands of a private citizen," Halili says.

Halili and the other STORM opponents have been lobbying hard against the bill since it was filed last Thursday. They've been watching for it and preparing to oppose it since they first heard rumors about such a bill in January. "Nobody can wrap their head around the fact that we're still having to fight this," she says. "If you want to protect the resource and you claim what you're doing is right, but then you have to go pass a law after the fact to actually make what you're doing legal, then you can't be doing the right thing."

We have a call in to Deshotel to speak with him about his reasons for filing HB 3335, and we'll update with his comments as soon as we hear from him.

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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray