South Texas county may sue to take wildlife
preserve, Nature Conservancy vows to fight forced
sale of South Padre land.
Eminent domain battle
shaping up at Padre Island
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND - Willacy County officials
think good things could at long last happen for
their remote corner of Texas - if only they could
overcome the 9.5-mile bay that separates the
mainland from their section of Padre Island.
A few years ago they bought a so-called ferry -
a 40-year-old amphibious vehicle that initially
failed to pass government safety standards. Now
they just need a place to land it.
But the section of Padre Island the county
wants is owned by the Nature Conservancy, and the
environmental group says it's not for sale.
So the county commissioners voted in November
to use eminent domain to seize the land, angering
conservancy members who fear an influx of
beachgoers will threaten wildlife on the
1,500-acre section of island.
Eminent domain gives governments the power to
take private land for public use - usually for
projects such as highways or mass transit systems.
Texas was one of at least 31 states to review
eminent domain laws following a U.S. Supreme Court
ruling last year that backed governments' power to
take private land for economic development as a
way to increase tax revenue.
Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill into law last
fall that limited eminent domain use in Texas,
saying government should not encroach upon private
property rights unless there is an eminent public
need. "Eminent domain for private use is a great
threat," he said.
County Attorney Juan Angel Guerra said the
county can legally take the land, since it will
allow the public better access to the island.
Currently, visitors must drive 25 miles up the
coast from South Padre Island to reach it. The
Conservancy vows to fight the land grab in court.
Willacy is a financially foundering county on
the northeast end of the Rio Grande Valley, about
40 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. It has
fewer than 18,000 people, and no real industry
since fruit-packing sheds and clothing factories
closed decades ago.
The bright spot is Port Mansfield, a popular,
semi-tropical gateway to what's considered some of
the best sport-fishing in the country, stretching
from the Gulf of Mexico through the Laguna Madre
Bay. But the bay waters off the mainland offer
little for beachgoers and swimmers.
"If you don't have access to the island, then
what's the purpose for coming here?" Guerra said.
The Willacy County Navigation District bought
the "Lark" amphibious vehicle in 2004 because it
didn't believe it would ever be able to build a
dock. Now, it wants to buy a place to load and
unload it so residents and tourists can enjoy the
The land north of the Mansfield Ship Channel is
the federally protected Padre Island National
Seashore, a wilderness area. That leaves the
southern side of the island, where the Conservancy
owns its property, known as a haven for rare and
endangered species, such as Kemp's ridley sea
turtles, piping plovers, and migrating peregrine
Conservancy representatives said they learned
of the county's eminent domain decision through
local news reports, and had to request a copy of
the meeting minutes to get more details.
"No one at Willacy County has made any attempt
whatsoever to contact the Nature Conservancy about
this matter," said Carter Smith, the Conservancy's
state director. "Candidly, we find that very
Smith said the Conservancy talked about selling
the land to the county several years ago but
decided against it because the county hadn't
thought through how it would deal with sanitation
issues, law enforcement and other ways to mitigate
environmental impacts and protect endangered
The Nature Conservancy's wildlife preserve on
South Padre Island is, according to its owners, a
treasure trove for threatened animals.
Piping plovers, a rare bird species, gather
there. Green sea turtles forage for food in the
Laguna Madre channel west of the island, while
endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtles lay eggs in
THE NATURE CONSERVANCY
The Willacy County Navigation
District may force the sale of a wildlife
preserve on northern South Padre Island so it
can run a tourist ferry there. County
commissioners have approved using a condemnation
lawsuit against the Nature Conservancy to
acquire the necessary land.
VALLEY MORNING STAR
Mike Wilson, port director of
the Willacy County Navigation District, plans to
use an amphibious craft to ferry passengers to
Willacy County Commissioners Court thinks people
need to see this gem — so much so that the county
may sue the Nature Conservancy, forcibly buy the
property and start driving tourists across the
beach in an amphibious ferry resembling the Duck
tour vehicles that roam downtown Austin.
The commissioners, who govern the coastal
county of about 20,000 just north of Brownsville,
voted last month to pursue a condemnation lawsuit
that could force the Nature Conservancy to sell
its preserve to the county's navigation district.
The district, which is related to the county
government, wants to build a ferry landing on the
land, a notion so saddled with business
uncertainties that the Texas General Land Office
this year pulled a $700,000 grant that would have
helped pay for it.
The mere pursuit of the land is a twist on the
state's increasingly touchy discussion about when
governments can take private property.
In environmental fights, it is normally
property rights advocates who raise constitutional
questions, demanding compensation for regulations
that devalue their land.
In this case, that role belongs to the Nature
Carter Smith, the conservancy's state director
for Texas, said that condemning a nature preserve
for development would threaten a practice praised
by property rights defenders: acquiring land
through private-sector means and setting it aside
for public use.
Smith said the group fears a ferry landing
could irreparably damage the preserve.
He added, however, that the county has refused,
at least so far, to spell out exactly what it
plans to build, how much land it needs or how it
would protect wildlife there.
Smith declared the potential case "a
fundamental assault on the sanctity of private
property rights and the future of private lands
County Judge Simon Salinas, whose commissioners
authorized a lawsuit on behalf of the separately
elected Willacy County Navigation District, is as
nonchalant about the fight as Smith is agitated.
Salinas says he has no beef with the Nature
He simply wants people from the area to be able
to see the property without having to find their
own boat ride or drive roughly 30 miles, much of
it over beaches, from the town of South Padre
Like all beaches in Texas, the preserve is open
to the public.
"We have a piece of nature out there, and I
think everybody should see it the way it is,"
"It is beautiful out there. . . . I don't want
to mess it up," he said. "This lawsuit doesn't
have to be unfriendly."
Willacy County and the conservancy have talked
about the land since 1998, when the group first
moved to buy about 25,000 island acres across the
Laguna Madre from Port Mansfield.
The conservancy completed the sale in 2000 and
three years later transferred almost all of its
property to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,
which operates a refuge on the island.
In 2003, the county navigation district began
writing to the conservancy about buying property
that was left.
Correspondence shows the conservancy asking a
number of questions about how the county would use
the land, as well as laying out concerns that the
habitat might be damaged by development.
Smith said the county never offered a
detailed response, and talks fizzled.
In the meantime, the Texas General Land Office
rescinded a 2002 grant that would have helped
build the landing and run the ferry.
Land office spokesman Jim Suydam ran through a
list of reasons for yanking the money, including
inadequate budgets and business plans and deep
questions about whether the amphibious craft was
up for the voyage.
Suydam said the U.S. Coast Guard would not
certify the craft to get farther than 1,000 feet
The navigation district proposes regular trips
of more than nine miles.
That is akin to taking a vehicle that can't
legally complete a lap around the University of
Texas track and sending it, regularly, from the
university to the outskirts of Pflugerville.
Salinas, however, is undeterred. He said
Willacy County still plans to run a ferry
to the island.
Lacking the $700,000, he said, officials will
rely on fares to pay for the project.
And if the Nature Conservancy won't sell its
land, the county will take it.
Smith said he learned of the condemnation only
when a reporter for a South Texas newspaper called
for his comments on it.
"Candidly, it's an astonishing way for a county
to go about their business," Smith said, "and a
real disservice to the citizens of Willacy
The condemnation apparent- ly does not run
afoul of a new state law passed this summer that
clamps down on eminent domain proceedings.
The law was passed during a special session in
the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing
city officials in New London, Conn., to condemn a
widow's house for a private economic
State Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston and a sponsor
of the eminent domain legislation, praised the
conservancy for its preservation efforts and its
"approach of participating in the private sector."
Janek said he is willing to consider the
concerns of conservation groups in legislative
hearings next year on eminent domain issues.
But he also said that governments need to
acquire land for transportation projects and that
sometimes they have to do it through condemnation.
"My first blush look at it is, (the
conservancy) would be treated the same way as a
homeowner," Janek said.