IssuesLocal NewsElon Musk’s SpaceX May Use Eminent Domain to Force Texans to Relocate

Since SpaceX decided to expand operations near a small community outside Brownsville, Elon Musk's company could use eminent domain against residents.
October 3, 2019
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Over 50 years ago, a radio personality from Chicago named John Caputa worked with Harold Caldwell, the owner of a 3,250-acre land property near the Texas-Mexico border on the coast, to develop the land and sell it to Polish immigrants.

The thirty homes built by Caputa are now known as Boca Chica Village and are trying to be acquired by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. — also known as SpaceX, owned by celebrity billionaire Elon Musk.

Although Caputa aimed for the stars with his plans for the community, disaster eclipsed his aspirations. In 1967, Hurricane Beulah ripped through the community, destroying the only restaurant and a water treatment plant, and it never fully recovered.

Even a drive down Weems Street — where most of the homes are located — on Google Maps shows many of the buildings boarded up and falling apart.

Now, the few residents living in the neighborhood have to have their water hauled in by trucks from nearby Brownsville.

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In 2012, when SpaceX was considering the area as a potential location for a launch site, My San Antonio reported that only five couples were permanent residents of the small community.

But for those residents, the isolation and quietness of Boca Chica had been their livelihood. That began to change when SpaceX became their new neighbor a few years ago. 

At the time, one of the retirees who lived in the neighborhood, Terry Heaton, told My San Antonio that he didn’t want Musk’s enterprise to move in next door and disrupt the tranquility, but he also said that SpaceX was more likely to succeed at developing the land than Caputa.

“Everybody else has relied on people to come out here and support their developments,” he said. “Rocket man is not relying on anybody except for his own business and the U.S. government.”

In addition to the astronomical amount of money that Musk’s companies have received in subsidies from the U.S. government, the Texas government also enticed SpaceX with subsidies to choose the Lone Star State over Florida or Puerto Rico.

After the company first made the location decision for its project, it was reported that the state offered them $2.3 million in a grant from the Texas Enterprise Fund and another $13 million grant from the taxpayer-funded Spaceport Trust Fund.

At the time, SpaceX was only planning on having a maximum of 12 rocket launches per year from Boca Chica and didn’t expect to be of significant disruption to the community.

In July, though, some of the testing at the site ignited a brush fire. With the fire and the expansion of testing done at the facility, the company started growing more concerned about posing a hazard to the residents in the community.

On September 12, SpaceX sent a letter obtained by Business Insider to the homeowners in Boca Chica offering to purchase their homes for “three times the independently appraised fair market value.”

“SpaceX sincerely appreciates the tremendous support that it has received from the Boca Chica Village residents and the local community since the groundbreaking of its South Texas launch facility almost five years ago,” the letter reads. “Since then, SpaceX has sought to conduct its operations in a manner that minimizes disruption to the nearby residents of the Village to the extent practically possible.”

The company gave residents a deadline to respond to their offer that expired last week and said the contracts were non-negotiable.

Some of the residents refused them, saying that they were not fair offers.

The Brownsville Herald reports that one of the residents “cited the example of a neighbor who bought a house in Boca Chica Village for well over $100,000 but ended up selling it to the company for $50,000.”

Since the company was able to purchase it at such a low cost, it has allegedly skewed the appraisals so that SpaceX’s offers are below a fair price.

While some of the residents are frustrated with SpaceX trying to buy their homes, most are trying to renegotiate to get better compensation or are simply refusing to move.

If SpaceX is determined to secure the property, they won’t need to use rocket science — just eminent domain.

According to Business Insider, Cameron County created the Cameron County Spaceport Development Corporation in 2013 to help handle the business transactions between the city and SpaceX. The private-public business was given eminent domain authority to force the residents to sell their homes and move.

Nicholas Serafy Jr., chairman of the corporation, told the outlet that use of eminent domain had not been discussed between the board and SpaceX, but that could change.

“I’m sure that authority was put in place for a reason. I’d be willing to explore it,” he said. “I wouldn’t say it’s been an elephant in the room, but it may become an elephant in the room.”

But Carlos Cascos, the judge of Cameron County when SpaceX first sought approval to move in, told Business Insider that he doesn’t like the practice of eminent domain and doesn’t think that the corporation could use it “on behalf of a private enterprise.”

Outside of Boca Chica Village, the people in Cameron County are generally excited about SpaceX’s presence, which they argue will bolster the local economy with millions of dollars in capital and — if Musk’s starry-eyed ambitions are realized — could make Brownsville as important to space exploration as Houston.

Given their excitement, they might be prone to argue for an exception for SpaceX to use eminent domain. Among those eager for SpaceX’s expansion is the current judge of Cameron County, Eddie Trevino Jr.

Trevino told CBS News, “I can certainly appreciate [the Boca Chica residents’] frustrations, but I gotta look at the big picture. I think that’s a big, big win, potential win for us. I feel bad for those people, but hopefully they’ll understand and appreciate at the end of the day this was beneficial for the entire area.”

Lawyers who defend against eminent domain practices told Business Insider that the fact that the corporation has the power to use eminent domain means that they likely can and will use it. 

Although SpaceX is a private company, the case for a spaceport could be argued similarly to cases for airports, which regularly use eminent domain.

“It’s just big money bullying little people,” Terry Heaton told the Brownsville Herald. “That’s really what it is.”

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Daniel Friend

Daniel Friend is a reporter for The Texan. He participated in a Great Books program at Azusa Pacific University and graduated in 2019 with a degree in Political Science. He has studied C.S. Lewis’s science fiction trilogy and in his spare time you might find him writing his own novel partly inspired by the series.