You know the story. The City of Branson gives a great deal to a private business to create an attraction on the Taneycomo lakefront. A few years later, the City doesn’t think the deal is working well for the City. The political winds have changed. Now there’s a lawsuit. Here’s how it went down, more than a half-century ago.
Jim Owen–not to be confused with the singer–played a major role in putting Branson on the tourism map. A consummate promoter of float fishing on the James and White rivers and tourism and commerce in the Branson area, he was unstoppable. Born in Webster County, Missouri (east of Springfield), he came to Branson in 1933, already experienced with public relations.
Soon Jim had built a movie theatre and started a float fishing business that got national attention and was also a banker and farmer. Some fine person posted this promotional silent film of one of his trips (11 minutes long) which took place in about 1940. In the film, you can see his theatre and float office on South Commercial in Branson, along with his father’s drug store and some terrific scenery of the White River, apparently below Taneycomo. He entertained celebrities of the day, including Gene Autry and painter Thomas Hart Benton, on his float trips. A Life magazine feature shows how fun such trips could be, as well as demonstrating Owen’s ability to get good publicity for his own enterprises and for Branson.
Owen’s ambitions included politics, and he became Branson’s mayor. In 1936, while mayor, he obtained from the City of Branson the perpetual right to use 150 feet of Taneycomo lakefront (where Branson Landing now sits), enlarged in 1941 to 200 feet. Owen built “Fishermen’s Dock” there, with steel cables running across Lake Street to trees. The dock also had a big sign on it that said “free parking.” Owen operated a marina there, renting boats and boat slips and selling the things that anglers buy. Apparently, the congestion of Lake Avenue was getting to be a problem, especially when the rocking of the dock lifted the cables off the pavement.
In 1955, the City of Branson sued Owen, when he was no longer mayor. The parties negotiated and filed a settlement with the court as a judgment. Under this judgment, the City controlled Lake Avenue to the water’s edge, and Owen had no special rights to the use of Lake Avenue. The City and Owen agreed that his perpetual sweetheart lease of 200 feet of prime lakefront was void and illegal. Nonetheless, the City would not interfere with Owen’s dock, but had the right to charge Owen and any other party a uniform wharfage tax or license fee for using the shoreline along Lake Street.
Two weeks after the suit was settled, the City adopted a wharfage tax. Owen sued the City, protesting that the dock itself was outside the city limits, floating on Lake Taneycomo. Moreover, he had a permit from the War Department (where the Corps of Engineers was located) for the construction of the dock, so the City had no right to interfere with his operation. The City, Owen claimed, did not have the authority to impose a wharfage tax.
Taney County Circuit Judge Warren White held for the City. Owen appealed.
The court of appeals was not impressed with Owen’s sense of entitlement:
The plaintiff, having secured the permit to maintain his dock alongside the public shore or landing by what amounted to a fraud in law…secured the benefit of recognition of a privilege to maintain a dock at that place, as well as an injunction which in effect prevented the city from making use of its own waterfront property in any manner.
Whether the wharfage tax was legal or not, the court of appeals held that Owen had no right to challenge it. You can read the opinion here.