Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management's lease giving the company control over most of the oyster reefs in Galveston Bay has been declared null and void.
After more than two years of verbal and then legal tussling, the plan to lease a substantial portion of the bay's oyster reefs to just one family was emphatically declared a no-go in a summary judgment granted by state District Judge Lonnie Cox on Wednesday.
As we wrote in our cover story, "Murky Waters" in 2015, this all started back in early 2014 when oystermen Tracy Woody and his father-in-law, Ben Nelson, the owners of Jeri's Seafood, set up a separate company, STORM. That summer, word got out that the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District had granted STORM a 30-year lease for more than 23,000 acres of submerged land — paying $1.50 per acre for the first three years of the lease — without getting the public's attention until the lease was signed and approved in April 2014. The lease was granted despite the fact that the navigation district was giving STORM rights to land that was already privately leased through the state.
Once news of the lease spread, Woody and Nelson were locked in a fight with the other big families in the small world of Texas oystering. Johnny and Lisa Halili; Clifford Hillman, of Hillman's Seafood; Michael Ivich, owner of Misha's Seafood; and oystermen Jure Slabic and Ivo Slabic had all known and worked with Nelson and Woody for years, but they joined forces to fight against the pair.
Nelson died of heart failure earlier this year, but Woody has continued to push to prove that STORM's lease with the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District is indeed valid. This bid has resulted in a slew of legal wrangling, including a stay from Judge Cox forbidding STORM to interfere with those oystering in the disputed area, a failed legislative attempt to back up the lease with state law, and a state lawsuit that was decided in favor of the state against STORM by the Third Court of Appeals earlier this year, along with the lawsuit filed last year by the Halilis and the other opponents of the lease.
Woody reportedly appealed for a motion of stay to the Texas Supreme Court to block the summary judgment, according to Lisa Halili. However, before the high court could make a decision, Cox signed off on the summary judgment declaring that:
- Texas Parks and Wildlife has exclusive authority to control the planting and harvesting of oysters.
- Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District has no legal authority to regulate oysters.
- The navigation district did not have legal authority under the Texas Constitution or state law to enter into the coastal surface lease with STORM.
- The coastal surface lease between STORM and the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District is null and void and is unenforceable against the rights and privileges granted by fishing and oystering licenses, leases and permits issued by the state.
This tangle between the Texas oystermen has come on the heels of a mess of other problems bedeviling the industry, including the devastating swathe of destruction to the reefs caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008, a state moratorium on issuing oystering permits and the years of drought that made bay waters too salty, followed by years of flood that made it not salty enough. And then came this.
The judgment is a thorough rejection of STORM's lease. It also reinforces the fact that navigation districts, the entities charged with maintaining waterways, can't trump the state.
"That's not what navigation districts were created for, to go into the oyster industry, to give one person the right to monopolize everyone's lives, to let one person take control of a public resource like Tracy was trying to do; that's an ocean of greed," Lisa Halili says. "We're so thankful Judge Cox saw that it was the wrong thing to do."
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Woody insists STORM is in the right on this issue, and that the law is on his side.
He issued a statement on the decision via email insisting that STORM has the right to "We feel that the law is clear in its protection of these rights that all owners of property should enjoy,” he told the Houston Press via email. “The state cannot lease to others what it does not own. Our lease and our rights come from the rightful owner of the property. We welcome the opportunity to clarify that these long and well established principles still apply today.”
Lisa Halili has been leading the fight against STORM from the start. Finally having a solid decision against the lease is a relief, she says. "It feels like the weight of the world was on my shoulders all this time, and it was so heavy I thought it might crush me. But it didn't."