Longform

Besieged by the Bay

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But Wilson, who says he knows "every crook and crook wannabe" in Galveston County, doubts there's any conspiracy afoot.

"San Leon might have gotten more beat on than anybody else," he says, "but everybody in the county is pissed off."

Ill will toward government is nothing unusual in San Leon and Bacliff. The sentiment dates at least back to the early 1980s, when tensions between American and Vietnamese shrimpers that had been building for several years erupted in violence. With the help of the federal government, a number of Vietnamese refugees resettled on Galveston Bay in the late 1970s, borrowed money for shrimp boats and began competing head-to-head with the locals. Angered by what they claimed were below-the-belt fishing tactics by the newcomers (and dwindling revenues), the natives grew restless. Three Vietnamese boats and a home in nearby Seabrook were torched. The Klan got involved. During one confrontation, a Vietnamese shrimper shot and killed an adversary; the gunman pleaded self-defense and was acquitted.

Hordes of reporters descended on San Leon, Seabrook and surrounding towns. Playing up the Klan angle, which was actually more sideshow than integral to the conflict, the newspaper and television reports portrayed area residents as bigoted rednecks, an image that still stings. Several people who said they'd been burned by the media during the shrimp battles refused to talk to the Press for this story.

For the most part, the Vietnamese and Texan shrimpers have ironed out their differences, though mistrust remains. The two groups even joined forces in 1994 to protest proposed state government restrictions on Gulf Coast shrimping. But Vietnamese shrimp boats and wholesalers now dominate the waterfront, a source of resentment for those who feel pushed out. These days, though, their vitriol is directed as much at state and federal government, which they blame for stacking the deck against them.

From such seeds of frustration spring such anti-government groups as the Republic of Texas, which, in fact, has a few members in the vicinity. After Leonard Clark Cooper's waterfront property was seized and sold for nonpayment of taxes, Cooper fired off a series of threatening letters and legal notices to the new owner and others demanding justice under the flag of the Republic. "You do not own my property," Cooper wrote, "but you will feel like you paid for it several times over and all who participate in this scam will feel likewise." Cooper's current whereabouts are unknown, though Jerry Daum says he's not in the area. But Daum is taking no chances. "I won't send any appraisers over there," he says.

One local businessman, who wears his distaste for the government on his sleeve, cautions that people like Cooper aren't to be dismissed lightly. "You know Fort Davis?" he says, referring to the West Texas town where Richard McLaren made his recent aborted stand against the Department of Public Safety. "That could happen here."

Indeed, some of the residents are talking revolt, though within the bounds of propriety. At the second community meeting organized by Marion Medlock, various people spoke about the possibility of putting together a statewide referendum, similar to Proposition 13 in California.

"There's so much about government that's unreasonable," says Bacliff resident Ed Jones, who sees the property tax issue uniting his neighborhood. "Hey, if California can do it, why can't we?"

That kind of initiative takes a tremendous investment of time and resources, though, and the ability of Medlock's group to sustain such an effort is doubtful: While the first meeting drew more than 100 people, the second attracted fewer than 60. One fiery speech about taxation without representation brought a smattering of applause, but for the most part, those in attendance seemed resigned to their fate, hoping at best to shave a few bucks off the bill. Medlock herself understands the odds. "I'm depressed," she said a week after the second meeting. No further explanation was necessary.

Even if it takes another decade or two for San Leon and Bacliff to gentrify, says Chuck Wilson, the die is already cast. That's just the way of it. "When everybody finds paradise, it changes," he says. "Everybody wants a piece of it."

In the end, though, the last laugh may belong to those who are forced to abdicate their property to the well-heeled. Constant erosion from the elements has carved a number of feet from the shoreline since the original maps were drawn. Avenue A, which was designed to run along the north shore of the peninsula in San Leon, now stops and starts because some of its intended path has eroded away. And plenty of residents still remember Hurricane Carla back in 1961, a killer which destroyed many of the houses on the bay and took away a chunk of waterfront.

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Bob Burtman