Texas County Takes Aim at Minorities' Land As Favor to Developers, Landowners Claim

     RICHMOND, Texas (CN) - A Texas county is trying to drive minorities from their land to make room for subdivisions by raising their taxes so high they can't afford to pay them, 28 landowners claim in court.
     Lead plaintiff Mary Shavers sued Fort Bend County's judge, its chief appraiser, its tax assessor-collector, the Lamar Independent School District and two law firms in Fort Bend County Court.
     A county judge in Texas is the equivalent of a county commissioner in other states.
     The plaintiffs claim that since growth took off in the county, the appraised value of minorities' land has increased far more quickly than Anglos' land.
     "Plaintiffs are African-Americans and/or Hispanics who are citizens and residents of the State of Texas," the complaint states. "They live in the Fulshear area, north of Cinco Ranch, the unincorporated Katy area of Fort Bend County."
     Fort Bend County, southwest of Houston, is one of the nation's fastest-growing counties; its population grew by 4.8 percent, to 532,141, between July 1, 2007 and July 1, 2008, when the tax hikes began, according to the complaint. Its population is about 607,000 today.
     "Much of this impressive growth comes from people flocking to new neighborhoods in the unincorporated Katy area of Fort Bend County," the complaint states. "Cinco Ranch, the Fulshear area and Seven Meadows are among the areas that have posted gains in new home sales during this same period.
     "Plaintiffs have low to modest income and have lived in this area for many generations. Plaintiffs own land/or real property ranging from a lot to over 100 acres which were passed to them from generations.
     "All through these years through their meager and modest income they have maintained and kept the property in their family by paying their property taxes which has always been reasonable all these time and before 2007.
     "However, beginning in 2007, they began to see a substantial increase in the assessed value of their property and their property taxes sky rocketed."
     Plaintiffs say they can't afford to pay the higher taxes.
     "Plaintiffs have observed that before the growth came to the Fulshear area, sometime before the year 2006 and prior, land owned by minorities valued by Fort Bend County Appraisal District was at $4,000-$4,500 per acre, while land owned by whites were around $20,000 per acre; growth hit and the value of minority's property jumped to $41,000 an acre while whites $22,000-$23,000 per acre," the complaint states.
     "Through investigation, plaintiffs learned that all similarly situated property in the area of the county was not being evaluated equally. The plaintiffs further observed that the property assessed values of their raw land were much higher than similarly situated land owned by whites.
     "Interestingly, plaintiffs have observed the building of subdivisions hit the Fulshear area in the early part of year 2007.
     "Further, plaintiffs have observed that during this time, delinquent tax collection actions were intensified to drive them from the land they have lived in for generations in what seemed designed to make room for the new subdivisions."
     The plaintiffs' attorney, Diogu Kalu Diogu II, told Courthouse News Service his clients' land has been targeted by developers.
     "The developers want the area where the African-Americans are living right now. They want to take it over and put subdivisions. I think the issue is they made (the taxes) so high so they could kick African Americans out of that place," Diogu said.
     Diogu said Fort Bend County increased the assessed value of the plaintiffs' properties without notifying them.
     "For example, on more than one occasion, one or more of the plaintiffs went to the office of Fort Bend Central Appraisal District to protest and were refused a hearing, claiming the property was not in their name, even though the office knew that they were heirs to the estate and the rejections were tacit admissions by the Appraisal office that they knowingly sent increased assessed value notices required by law to purported property owners they knew or should have known were deceased," the complaint states.
     Diogu underscored this issue to Courthouse News.
     "The county has records and they should be on the appraisal rolls but it does not matter," he said. "It is so funny that when they want to foreclose on the property they will send the heirs the citation, but when it's time to increase (their taxes) they will not do anything. ... All the plaintiffs: they will find them when it's time to foreclose on their property but it will be too late for them to redeem their property because the appraisal is so high they can't afford it."
     The plaintiffs say in the complaint that in some instances they set up payment plans with law firms the county hired to collect property taxes, but when they fell short, "no matter how slightly," their land was foreclosed on.
     They seek a restraining order to stop foreclosure and sale of their land, and damages for violations of civil rights and due process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, conspiracy, violations of the Texas Tax Code and negligent supervision and training.
     At a hearing on Tuesday a judge reset the matter for April 30, finding it was not an emergency, and there was no threat of foreclosure, Diogu told Courthouse News.
     "So we'll have a full blown hearing for a temporary injunction on April 30," he said.
     Fort Bend County Appraiser Glen Whitehead Jr. told Courthouse News he could not comment on the case.
     Named as defendants are Robert Hebert, in his official capacity as the County Judge of Fort Bend County; Glen Whitehead Jr., in his individual and official capacity as Chief Appraiser Officer of Fort Bend County Appraisal District; Patsy Shultz, in her individual and official capacity as the Tax Assessor Collector of Fort Bend County, Texas; Lamar Consolidated Independent School District, by and through its board of trustees; Linebarger Goggan Blair & Sampson, LLP; and Perdue Brandon Fielder Collins & Mott LLP.