For years private oyster leaseholders have been duking it out in court over whether one family had the right to lease and seize control over a massive tract of oyster reefs in Galveston Bay with Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management (STORM), a company created as a means to take control of the reefs, getting the worst of it in every legal fight.
Now, STORM's opponents have once again scored a victory in court, this time over whether or not the Texas Open Meetings Act was violated to make it possible to make the deal to lease state oyster reefs to STORM, even though many of the reef tracts had already been leased to other people.
As we wrote in our cover story, "Murky Waters," in 2015, this all started back in early 2013 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.
But that was just the beginning of the fight. The state got involved, filing a lawsuit against STORM that claimed the navigation district commissioners never had the right to issue the lease. The case bounced through the legal system before the Third Court of Appeals in Austin sided with the state against STORM and the commissioners who had originally signed off on the deal last year.
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There was also plenty of pushback from the locals, who fought the bid to lease such large portions of the oystering reefs in the court of public opinion and, of course, in actual court. Nelson died in 2016 but Woody has continued to push that the lease was legally issued and is valid.
Meanwhile, Johnny and Lisa Halili, along with Clifford Hillman, of Hillman's Seafood, Michael Ivich, owner of Misha's Seafood, and oystermen Jure Slabic and Ivo Slabic, all big names in the small world of the Texas oyster industry, filed a lawsuit against the company and the Chambers Liberty Counties Navigation District in April 2015. The suit contended that the STORM deal was only possible because the navigation district commissioners and STORM representatives violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, a move that the plaintiffs claim allowed STORM to quietly arrange to get the lease without getting the public's attention.
On Wednesday a jury in Galveston County found in favor of the plaintiffs, and ordered STORM's owners to pay their attorney fees, which are just under $500,000.
It's a legal victory, but don't count on either Woody or the commissioners backing down. Woody has continued to maintain that the lease is valid and the commissioners have continued to refuse to rescind the lease.