A court ruling Wednesday voided a lease between a Chambers County navigation district and an oysterman that granted exclusive rights to 23,000 acres in Galveston Bay.

The ruling by Judge Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court in Galveston is a victory for a group of oystermen who challenged the lease granted by the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District to Tracy Woody in April 2014.

“For two years, this illegal lease has added to the heartaches of the good people who make their livelihood harvesting oysters,” said Cris Feldman, lead attorney for a group of oyster company owners in Galveston County.

“Their life’s work has been threatened and jeopardized by corrupt government dealings. Today, Judge Cox delivered justice for the people of Texas.”

Johnny and Lisa Halili, the founders and owners of Prestige Oysters, along with Clifford Hillman of Hillman’s Seafood, Michael Ivic of Misho’s Seafood and oystermen Jure Slabic and Ivo Slabic are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

Attorneys for Woody, who argue the navigation district owns the submerged land and thus the rights to lease it, said they intend to appeal the ruling in a Houston court.

“We will continue to maintain that the rights of property owners must be protected,” said Jim Galbraith, lead attorney for Woody. “We feel that the law is clear in its protection of these rights that all owners of property should enjoy. The state cannot lease to others what it does not own.”

Galbraith also filed a request for an emergency stay Wednesday on grounds the case should be heard in Chambers County instead of Galveston because two of the leases are there.

Woody and his now deceased father-in-law, Ben Nelson, owners of Jeri’s Seafood in Smith Point, purchased a 30-year lease to oyster rights on 23,000 acres of the bay from the Chambers-Liberty Counties Navigation District.

The effort, known by the acronym STORM, created a firestorm of dissent from competitors and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which manages dredging rights in the area.

In a court hearing Monday, attorneys for a group of Galveston County-based oystermen argued a lease owned by a Chambers County oysterman should be considered void because only the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has the authority to regulate who leases oyster beds.

Attorneys also argue the Chambers County oystermen and a restaurant group with the lease should cover the legal costs for the oystermen who brought the challenge.

But attorneys representing a Chambers County seafood group said the navigation district that granted the lease owns the land and has the right to lease the bay floor for oystering.

A more-than 100 year old patent from the state grants ownership of the land to the navigation district, which allows the authority to lease the bottom, attorneys argued. Texas Parks and Wildlife leases do not apply in the 23,000 acres in question, attorneys said.

In a ruling Wednesday, Cox said the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has the exclusive authority to control the planting and harvesting of oysters and the navigation district lacked authority to grant the lease. The lease is void, according to the ruling.

“The court further declares that as to every counterclaim asserted by STORM in its live pleading, plaintiffs are not trespassers,” the ruling said.

The ruling dismissed the case and said STORM is responsible for the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees.

The lease is the subject of two separate lawsuits, one in Galveston County and one in Travis County.

At issue in the challenges is who has authority to grant oyster leases in a sizable section of Galveston Bay. The Third Texas Court of Appeals in Austin in July ruled the district’s commissioners lacked the authority to grant a company an oyster lease in a separate lawsuit brought by the state against the navigation district. That case is pending before the state’s Supreme Court, which has not said if it will hear the arguments.

Contact reporter Marissa Barnett at 409-683-5257 or marissa.barnett@galvnews.com.

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