Men's Breakfast Report, July 2011
The Men’s Breakfast Group met Saturday, July 9th with Jim Barnett, Chairman of the Freeport Economic Development Commission and former Freeport Mayor.
The main topic of the discussion was the urban redevelopment district. The need for the redevelopment district came from a real estate promotion of the 1890s. Some promoters bought a plantation and divided it into five acre tracts. They also platted a Velasco Town Site near Velasco with a large number of twenty-five-foot-wide town lots. The promoters then sold these five acre tracts to people from Chicago and other cold parts of the Midwest as places to retire and have small citrus farms. As a sweetener to close the deal, the promoters would include a free Velasco Town Site lot. The total area of the Town Site is greater than 400 acres. Since five acre citrus farms run by Midwestern city dwellers in Brazoria County were not economically viable, these schemes were forgotten. The five acre tracts were eventually bought by local people and converted to economic uses, but the town sites were of little value and forgotten.
In 1966 Freeport decided that the only way it could expand was by using the Velasco Town Site. However, the lots were too small to build on and ownership was murky for most of them. They had been passed down through multiple generations and ownership was often divided among multiple heirs. Freeport therefore got the Texas legislature to pas an urban redevelopment law that specifically addressed these concerns. For example, it allows notice by publication. It also allows purchase by eminent domain. Some of the lots have been acquired from tax sales, but even this is difficult because of the requirements of notification. The lots are appraised at only a couple of hundred dollars so taxes are only a few dollars per year. Many people have continued to pay taxes even though they can’t use the land or even know anything about it. The economic development commission, the urban renewal board and the City or Freeport have worked, with varying degrees of diligence, through the last forty years to acquire the property. They have now acquired all but six lots.
Developers are not willing to consider developing the property if there are isolated plots in it that they do not own. The city therefore needs to acquire these remaining six lots from five different owners. Some of the owners see this as an opportunity to extort big money from the city. One owner was asked how much he wanted for his two hundred dollar lot and said five thousand dollars. The city sent him a check for $5,000 which the owned returned uncashed. Another lot is owned by a couple that is going through a divorce and will not agree on any terms. In principle, the city can use eminent domain to acquire the lots. However, the recent changes in laws restricting the use of eminent domain for economic development make this process risky and expensive. Jim believes that eminent domain may still be possible since the urban redevelopment law is a special case. No other city in Texas has used it because no other city had this kind of messy land ownership.
Eminent domain is still available for municipal functions such as streets and sewer plants. The Breakfast group suggested that the lots could be designated as locations for lift stations or retention ponds and the city could acquire them that way. It was also suggested that the lots be made into islands in the middle of retention ponds.
Once the land is completely acquired it can be replatted and a developer can then build housing on it. A conceptual plan has been drawn up with over 500 houses along with parks, retention ponds and some commercial at the edges. What a developer actually does will depend on negotiations with the city. The danger is that the city has taken so long to acquire the land that there is now no need for additional housing in Freeport because of the collapse of the housing market. This will be a problem because it is believed that a city needs to grow or it will die.
Another project of the Economic Development Commission is a bird observatory. Freeport is on the neo-tropical bird flyway and has a large number of birds passing through. Bird-watching is a draw for tourists. A few years ago the city learned about how Beaumont was using treated wastewater to create a wetlands for birds. The city obtained grants from the state and Ducks Unlimited to set up a similar situation on the south side of the city near the sewer plant. The city was told to allow the ecology to take care of itself for several years. The vegetation has now established itself and observation paths and towers can be built. A state grant has been obtained for building these facilities which should be finished in about a year.
As usual the men had an interesting discussion and a good breakfast. The next meeting will be Saturday, August 13th with featured guest Carolyn Johnson, Brazosport College Regent and our representative on the Brazos River Authority.