As a child growing up in the East End of Freeport, Edmeryl Williams lived a mantra that since has become a cliché.
“People quote that it takes a village, but it really did,” Williams said. “The children knew the other children’s parents, and our house was always filled with other people’s children.
“It didn’t matter if our brothers went from Sixth to Eighth street, somebody would call and say, ‘Do you know where they are?’”
Williams moved into her current home in the 500 block of East Sixth Street in 1969. Since then, she has seen her formerly thriving neighborhood dwindle as more and more people leave the increasingly industrial corner of Freeport.
“There are three of us in the 500 block of East Sixth Street,” Williams said. “Most of them have died or moved off. There’s no one left, really.”
Port Freeport began buying properties several years ago on the east side of the city for its expansion, working with owners to help them relocate before demolishing the properties.
The port now owns 179 of the 259 platted lots from Fifth to Eighth streets, and 198 of the 554 platted lots from Eighth to Second streets, Port Freeport Director of Engineering Jason Hull said.
“The homes that remain are either residential or rental houses,” Hull said. “There are just a handful of vacant homes.”
Acquiring property on the East End — which spans the areas of Broad and Second streets, Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth streets as well as Pine Street — is part of the port’s plan to extend its operational footprint, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Strader said. He said the port isn’t forcing anyone out, but it is working to buy lots as they come onto the market.
“It’s a willing seller-willing buyer basis,” Strader said. “There’s no specific timeline. We’ve stepped up our efforts, but that’s the only real change.”
Eric Hayes, a Freeport resident and real estate developer, owns five rental properties on the East End. In September, he received a letter from port attorney Jason Cordoba asking to begin negotiations for property on East Fifth Street, where Hayes was building a new rental home.
“It was already dried in and almost complete. The builders were putting in the kitchen counter,” Hayes said. “They sent the builder a letter before they even sent me a letter.
“They halted the process with the builder. I had to call them and get them to resume building.”
Hayes said he called Cordoba to begin negotiations for the property, but he never received a response.
He since has wrapped up construction on the home and rented it out to a tenant, who signed a five-year lease.
“I’m open to negotiation, but I’m not going to give it away, and I wasn’t going to let it sit empty,” Hayes said.
Strader said the East End of Freeport is important to the full build-out of the port’s Velasco Terminal facility, allowing for a more robust gate complex. At build-out, the new terminal will encompass about 90 acres of container and general cargo storage facilities fronted with a 2,400-foot dock.
Development also will further plans for Highway 36-A, a more defined rail and trucking route from Freeport to Rosenburg.
The rail line, which is modeled to travel up to Rosenberg in Fort Bend County, would link the port to three Class-1 railroads — making it a huge draw for shipping companies once the Panama Canal expansion is completed and revolutionizes shipping across the world. The expansion is projected to be finished this year.
“On the longer term, the development will tie into the 36-A effort and proposed rail corridor,” Strader said. “The terminal facility will feed cargo into the rail and highway corridor.”
Freeport City Manager Jeff Pynes said the city has taken the position that the port can acquire East End property on a willing basis.
“It’s very voluntary,” Pynes said. “That’s the basic rationale.”
The city is not involved in the acquisition of the property, Pynes said.
The Texas Landowner’s Bill of Rights dictates landowners are entitled to receive adequate compensation if their property is taken for public use, and that the entity proposing to buy the property must provide a written appraisal from a certified appraiser detailing that compensation.
The entity also must make a bona fide offer to buy the property before filing a lawsuit to condemn it.
Hayes said when he previously sold the port a $30,000 parcel of land on Terminal and Seventh Street, port officials assured him they would not acquire property beyond Fifth Street.
“I voiced concern about my other properties, and they said they weren’t going past Fifth,” Hayes said. “Then I heard they had a whole new plan to go to Second Street.”
In a city strapped for housing, the East End is prime real estate property, Hayes said. However, the prospect of the port’s acquisition has deterred many owners from building.
“If I knew they weren’t going to destroy it, I’d build houses down there,” Hayes said. “That’s high land, so it doesn’t flood, and there are no water issues. Most of the infrastructure there is in pretty good shape. The city sewers have been replaced.
“The city doesn’t have much land for housing,” Hayes said. “We don’t need to give it away.”
Williams said port officials have never approached her directly about purchasing her property, but there is a sign-up sheet at meetings where residents can agree to sell their property and relocate to designated homes on West Ninth Street.
“They’re supposed to come up with a contract everybody can look over,” she said. “They’re supposed to be building new houses.”
Williams has watched many neighbors agree to sell their property to the port, but she said she has reservations about leaving behind the neighborhood where she and her siblings accepted Jesus Christ decades ago.
“A lot of people are willing to move, but I don’t like that there’s a designated area. You ought to be able to live wherever you want peacefully, and what’s to say that when they want that land, they won’t come back and say, ‘You have to move?’” Williams said.
“There was a lot of love here. We’re not trying to block anybody’s progress, and we’re not trying to treat them unfairly. We just want to be treated fairly.”