Civil rights case by landowners moving to Beaumont federal court

Marilyn Tennissen Apr. 5, 2007, 1:00pm

A case involving landowners who say a lawsuit against them is a violation of their civil rights is making its way to a federal court in the Eastern District of Texas.

William White, Steven White and Laird Finch filed suit in Galveston in the Southern District of Texas federal court in November. The federal suit was in response to a state suit filed against them in October 2006, alleging the three Chambers County residents of trying to stop a drainage project that would aid flooding problems in southwest Jefferson County.

The Whites and Laird participated in the comment period of the permit process for the drainage project that has been in development for 14 years. The public comment period is required before an agency like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will grant a permit for work by the Corps of Engineers.

The brothers and their neighbor claim the proposed project would cause additional flooding on their land.

The landowners say having a lawsuit filed against them for commenting is a violation of their rights protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Their attorney, environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn of Houston, filed a federal civil rights suit on their behalf in the Southern District, because the plaintiffs reside in Chambers County.

However, Southern District Judge Sam Kent has transferred the case to the Eastern District of Texas court in Beaumont.

"Judge Kent thought the Eastern District was the appropriate venue because most of the land in dispute and most of the defendants are in Jefferson County," Blackburn said in an April 5 telephone interview. "We expect to hear what judge the case has been assigned to next week."

The original state suit, filed by Walter Umphrey on behalf of 20 landowners and Jefferson County Drainage Districts 3 and 6, claims the complaints about the project by the Whites and Laird were "shams." Umphrey says the agency reviews, hydrology studies and manpower involved in the project have cost Drainage District 6 and Jefferson County more than $8 million.

Umphrey and the 20 plaintiffs said the Whites and Laird "hijacked" the project at the 11th hour because of a "highly unlikely few inches of water in the Intracoastal Canal and the scientifically ridiculous assertion that their cows will float the wrong way in the canal."

"The permitting process allows comments, and it's a very important part of process, and that's all the Whites and Laird did," Blackburn said. "To be sued over that is outrageous. We are trying to seek a remedy not only for the White Ranch but for other in the future."

"This is about their constitutional civil rights," Blackburn added.

The state case originally filed against the three landowners is still pending, Blackburn said.

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