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Oystermen File Lawsuit Against the Navigation District That Granted STORM's Lease

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Back in September, after more than two years of verbal and then legal tussling, Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management's plan to lease a substantial portion of Galveston 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.

But that wasn't the end of the litigation.

Now the parties involved in the previous lawsuit against STORM have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit claiming their Constitutional rights have been violated by a conspiracy of the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District board members to help one company, Jeri’s Seafood, take control of Galveston Bay.

As we wrote in our 2015 cover story, "Murky Waters," 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, Sustainable Texas Oyster Resource Management. 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.

Ultimately, Cox and the state found the navigation district had no right to issue the lease. Woody said he planned to appeal Cox's decision to the Texas Supreme Court, but things have been relatively quiet since then. (Nelson died of heart failure earlier this year.)

The federal lawsuit was filed on Monday in the Galveston Division of the Southern District of Texas against the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District for issuing the lease in the first place. The suit also calls out the officials individually. Board of Navigation and Canal Commissioners of the District Chairman Terry Haltom and fellow commissioners Ken Coleman, Ken Mitchell,  David Wilcox and former commissioner Allen Herrington are all being held personally responsible for the fallout caused by giving STORM the lease.

The lawsuit contends that Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District knew the lease was wrong but never considered giving the lease to any party other than STORM "even though they were well aware that plaintiffs and other oystermen were competitors and had competing leases with the state." The navigation district also failed to seek approval for the lease with Texas Parks and Wildlife, according to the lawsuit, and claimed that it had the right to control the submerged land and the oysters and other aquatic life that lived on it.

Chambers Liberty-Counties Navigation District General Manager Mary Beth Stengler said the district doesn't have any comment on the lawsuit and referred the Houston Press to its lawyers. Calls to the law firm Lloyd Gosselink in Austin were not returned.

After STORM got the lease, the company issued "no trespassing" warnings to people who had state-issued oystering leases in the area. By denying their leases with the state, the oystermen's "fundamental right to freedom of contract without undue governmental interference" was infringed on, the lawsuit contends, violating their 14th Amendment right of due process. Since the lease was only offered to STORM, the lawsuit states, the oystermen were also denied their 14th Amendment right of equal protection of the law.

Because of all of this, the oystermen have been unable to cultivate — let alone harvest — oysters from their leases and they are suing for damages because of this.

It's already been a long, litigious battle over the oyster reefs, and it looks like the fight is not over yet.

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