Fighting Freeport

When summer strikes the coastal town of Freeport, Texas, shrimp boats migrate en masse to Western Seafood’s 30,000-square-foot processing facility. Wright Gore III’s grandfather purchased the wholesale shrimping business in 1949, and the thriving company has remained in the family ever since.

“He’s 85 years old now, and he calls me every day wanting to know if his business is going to be here tomorrow,”[1] Gore said.

His grandfather’s worries do not stem from financial concerns or entrepreneurial competition; Western Seafood’s facility rakes in approximately $40 million annually.[2] In fact, Gore and his family have every intention of maintaining the business as they have for half a century. But there’s the rub.

Freeport city officials pose a significant threat to the company’s very existence—and the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2005 decision in Kelo v. City of New London only worsened the situation. The ruling gave Freeport redevelopment officials and others nationwide the green light to condemn private property for private gain. In this Texas town, City officials had set eminent domain takings into motion in 2003, and Kelo, as it has around the country, served as a catalyst for the City to initiate a condemnation action.

City authorities plan on seizing Western Seafood’s property along the Old Brazos River and handing it over to a politically connected developer who intends to build an $8 million private boat marina.[3]

The consequence, according to Gore, “is that all of our livelihoods are in jeopardy as a result of this abuse of eminent domain.”

Threats of Condemnation from the Very First Meeting

After learning of the City’s proposal, Gore did everything possible to avoid a political or legal battle.

“Our first reaction was to act like businessmen and to work this out in a way that everybody wins,” he said. “We were hopeful that eminent domain wouldn’t be necessary, but we became increasingly wary when this threat figured very heavily into each and every conversation we had with the City.”

Early on, Freeport officials called eminent domain a tool they intended to use if necessary—constantly threatening to condemn the tract of land on which Western Seafood stands. There was never an attempt to include the business in the redevelopment plans, nor any effort to negotiate acceptable alternatives.

At the time, Gore was not as intimately familiar with eminent domain law as he would soon become.

“I only knew that it was used to take property for roads, bridges and streets. I was not aware that government could take my land and transfer ownership to somebody else,” he said.

Through a series of meetings and further research, Gore learned the details of the City’s economic development plan; the City would condemn his business and Trico Seafood Co., hand over the tracts of land to developer Freeport Marina, and Dallas developer Hiram Walker Royall would become the primary beneficiary of the eminent domain actions. Further research of state and local laws governing eminent domain led Gore to realize that in order to protect the business for which his family had worked so hard, he would have to launch a grassroots front—and that’s exactly what he did.

Taking Action at the Local Level

Wright Gore’s campaign against eminent domain abuse is as comprehensive as it gets. He first built a comprehensive grassroots base, and then proceeded to make as much noise as possible in an effort to garner every last bit of support that he could come across.

After all, every poll indicates that Americans from all walks of life oppose eminent domain for economic development—and Gore strategically capitalized on the political momentum to finally stop eminent domain abuse that’s spread nationwide.

“We coordinated our ‘Scandal in Freeport’ website and hung door hangers on everybody’s door informing them of the City’s blight designation,” Gore said. “We even rented out a 40-foot billboard advertising the website and the eminent domain abuse.”

Other political and public efforts included circulating petitions door-to-door in the community, notifying home and business owners that their respective properties were possibly at stake, staging rallies and marches, and speaking out at city council meetings.

“By going door-to-door with our petitions, I have found it reassuring to talk to people and see that this is a common fear and outrage amongst thousands of Freeport homeowners and business owners,” he added.

Gore and his grassroots coalition undoubtedly succeeded in getting the word out, and Royall responded in 2004 by filing a libel lawsuit in an effort to silence opposition to the proposed redevelopment and corresponding eminent domain takings.

“The lawsuit was a naked attempt to stifle our freedom of speech to redress grievances against our local government,” he said. “And the website stands today. We would not be discouraged from publishing the truth about the development agreements and about the master plans.”

The Battle Continues

In the summer of 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Kelo v. City of New London, a landmark case that would forever change the landscape of property law nationwide. For Gore and thousands of home and business owners nationwide, the Kelo decision met with profound disappointment.

“It was just a real kick in the gut. We had all felt like we had had the wind knocked out of us that day,” he said. “Little did we know, we lost that battle but we’re winning the war.”

That summer, the Castle Coalition brought together activists nationwide for its annual eminent domain conference in Washington, D.C., and Gore says that the training workshop provided him with the “nuts and bolts to make [our] voices heard at city hall.”

He added, “The highlight of that conference was lunching with Susette Kelo. She’s shown us all how to fight, and it really helped to build an esprit de corps among everyone there who fight the same battles for liberty all over the country.”

Back in Freeport, Gore has continued his fight in the courts of law and public opinion—and the Institute for Justice recently filed a brief on behalf of his business. On the public relations front, he has expanded on his outreach efforts and continues to see increased traffic on his website. He is optimistic that grassroots activism has proven immensely successful in staving off an abusive land-grab, and he hopes that the courts and his fellow citizens will ultimately protect his property and others from the government’s wrecking ball.

“It’s finally possible for all of us to see a day in the near future where we won’t face these threats to our liberty and property,” he said. For now, legislators in Texas and throughout the country have the historic opportunity to implement meaningful reform.

As for Western Seafood, Gore says his business can no longer exist as it has for the past fifty years if he loses the condemnation battle.

“That’s why we’ll take this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to.”

[1] Wright Gore, Personal Interview with Justin Gelfand, Feb. 6, 2006.

[2] Thayer Evans, “Freeport moves to seize 3 properties; Court’s decision empowers the city to acquire the site for a new marina,” Houston Chronicle, June 24, 2005.

[3] Ibid.