A federal lawsuit accuses Port Freeport of threatening residents of a minority community with eminent domain and coercing them into selling their property.
In 1930, Freeport’s white leaders established a “negro district” perched on the edge of what would eventually become one of the nation’s largest deepwater ports, near where the Brazos River meets the Gulf. Two years later, after white residents complained that not all African Americans had moved to the district, leaders instructed the city marshall to strictly enforce the segregation ordinance. Everyone of African ancestry who wasn’t living in servants quarters at the back of a white employer’s property was forced into a neighborhood downwind of the city’s noxious sulfur plant. The community became known as Freeport’s East End. Over time, its citizens built a school and opened several black-owned businesses, even as petrochemical plans slowly encircled it.
While segregation corralled Freeport’s minority community into the East End, industry has now nearly all but displaced it. In the past decade, Port Freeport, the entity controlling the waterway and land around it, has acquired scores of East End lots where homes, grocery stores and decades-old churches once stood, all part of a project to deepen the port’s channel, improve the harbor and expand its shipping facilities in order to make Port Freeport “bigger, deeper, wider.” According to census figures, only about 350 people lived in the East End as of 2010. Now, fewer than 100 people live in the area, according to estimates from people in the neighborhood.
The displacement of Freeport’s East End community is now the subject of a federal lawsuit against Port Freeport, which is controlled by a quasi-public, six-member commission elected by local navigation district voters. Port officials have said they simply acquire East End land as it goes on the market, on a “willing seller-willing buyer basis,” but lawyers with Lone Star Legal Aid claim port negotiators have threatened landowners with eminent domain and coerced them into selling their property at unfavorable terms.
According to the lawsuit filed in late August, port officials have skirted federal and state laws designed to ensure fair treatment for people displaced by publicly funded projects. In doing so, officials violated the rights of vulnerable East End residents while rapidly extinguishing what remained of their community.
“The history of Freeport’s East End began in racism, and unfortunately, Port Freeport’s intentional destruction of this community one property at a time will be its legacy,” the lawsuit states.
A port representative issued a general denial to the claims in the lawsuit, but wouldn’t answer specific questions from the Observer.
For about a decade, the port has been buying up vacant East End lots for their tax-appraised values — well below market prices in many cases, according Amy Dinn, a managing attorney with Lone Star Legal Aid who filed the lawsuit. In 2015, port representatives began canvassing the neighborhood to see if anyone was interested in selling.
By early 2016, according to the lawsuit, the port began sending low-ball offers to landowners in the East End. The port’s plans to stretch into the East End soon became more explicit. Port authorities tapped a homebuilder to erect “swap” houses for residents willing to leave the neighborhood as planning maps began to call the East End the “expansion area.”
The civil rights group claims the city of Freeport accelerated the East End’s decline for years, refusing to give residents permits to rebuild or repair homes, and thus making it easier for the port to gobble up property on the cheap. Manning Rollerson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, says he was forced to tear down the East End house his family has owned since the ’70s because the city wouldn’t give him the required permits.
“They devalued my whole neighborhood for years, devalued my land,” Rollerson, 56, told the Observer. He called the port’s $21,000 offer for his vacant lot “insulting” and has refused to take it.
City officials didn’t respond to calls and emails from the Observer seeking comment. Last month’s lawsuit follows a civil rights complaint Lone Star Legal Aid filed last year with numerous federal agencies that have funneled hundreds of millions of dollars toward port operations in recent years.
Lone Star Legal Aid’s central claim is that the exodus of East End residents has been anything but “voluntary,” as the port has maintained. So far, Port Freeport hasn’t invoked its eminent domain authority. Dinn, the civil rights attorney, says doing so would trigger certain protections to ensure fair compensation for property owners, such as written notice of market value and paying for relocation and other expenses.
Instead, Dinn claims port representatives have threatened landowners with eminent domain without offering the protections of actually invoking it. Rollerson said he was told by a port representative that his land would eventually be theirs whether he liked it or not.
“The port has been saying everything’s voluntary, that they have willing sellers and aren’t forcing anybody to sell their property, which is just not true,” Dinn told the Observer. “They’re already operating a relocation program. The neighborhood is a target on their maps. They are actively telling people that they will acquire it regardless of whether people want to sell.”
Dinn’s lawsuit doesn’t seek a dollar amount but rather asks a judge to declare the port’s current acquisition process in the East End a violation of federal law. She says the goal is to force the port to deal fairly with residents as it swallows up what’s left of the East End. According to her lawsuit, the port has acquired over 50 East End properties in the past year alone. The buying price has varied widely from $2 to $78 per square foot.
“That just shows they’re not following a uniform process,” Dinn said. “Every single property owner deserves to be treated the same. You can’t come in and just start threatening to take people’s land.”