A request for abandonment of several rights of way on Porretto Beach will go to Galveston City Council at the end of the month with a negative recommendation from the planning commission.

A contentious commission meeting Tuesday culminated in a split 4-3 vote to deny an application that requests 25 public easements be abandoned on the beach between Sixth and 10th streets.

Randy Williams, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee for the estate of Sonya Porretto, is trying to sell the land in order to clear the estate, but a $6 million buyer has requested that the rights of way — technically city property — are included in the sale.

While the commission’s vote is only a recommendation and not an indication of how the city council will vote Jan. 25, Williams said he’s going to move ahead with an alternative option.

“I’m going to ask the court for authority to hold an auction,” Williams said after the denial. “I just don’t have any faith that city council will do anything different than what these people did.”

City staff and attorneys have said the issue should be confined to the rights of way alone, but at the core of the issue is the proposed development on the beach. The $6 million buyer, WRCB L.P., which has an agreement with Williams on buying the beach, is planning on building a multiuse boardwalk on the land.

Many in the public had opposed the project for various reasons, including the possibility of blocking public views of the beach.

Commission Chairman Bruce Reinhart, Vice Chairman John Dreiss and Commissioner Lisa Blair voted in favor of abandoning the easements. Commissioners Carol Hollaway, Cate Black, Eugene Cook and Jeffrey Hill opposed it, with several of them citing concerns about the proposed development.

Black said building a large development on the beach would be “irresponsible,” even though the city has stated it has had no intention to use the easements, which usually is enough to validate an abandonment.

“I recognize that the criteria for abandonment is valid, but I think this is a different situation because it’s a beach,” Black said. “If we pretend like it’s not, then I think that’s irresponsible, too.”

Michael Gaertner, the architect designing the proposed development, had previously asked the council to uphold a 1978 agreement to abandon 10 of the rights of way on the beach. The council could never confirm whether the abandonments officially took place because no documentation was found proving the transaction.

That vote was deferred to give the request before the commission Tuesday a complete hearing, starting from scratch, council members said. The request the planning commission reviewed Tuesday involved the 10 1978 rights of way as well as 15 additional ones. All of them were signed off by landowners who neighbor the beach.

The planning commission denial came despite city staff’s recommendation to approve the application.

“The staff is unaware of any municipal purpose or contemplated municipal use that would prevent the abandonment from moving forward,” Historic Preservation Officer Catherine Gorman said.

The three commissioners who voted in favor of the abandonment backed Gorman’s claim and said that abandonments are usually only denied if the city has a purpose for the land.

“This really has nothing to do with development,” Dreiss said. “We’re dealing with property that is not of use to the city, is not being used by the city and has value in selling it to the developer.”

If the rights of way are abandoned, they would be appraised and sold, Gorman said.

Reinhart said most people against the abandonments were thinking about the development.

“I feel a lot of this is about people concerned about view blocking,” Reinhart said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”

A handful of people spoke at the meeting against the abandonments, urging the city to keep them because they might be worth something in the future.

Former City Councilman Ralph McMorris said he’s concerned city is rushing to get rid of easements.

“This is the best investment the city can make,” McMorris said.

Beyond people associated with the developer, only Galveston restaurateur and hotelier Dennis Byrd spoke in favor of the abandonment. The development on the land could add significant economic value to the city, he said.

“I would like to see this development built,” Byrd said. “If you don’t proceed today, you would be imposing your will and your values and your beliefs on this project.”

Eventually, environmental and aesthetic concerns over the development won out. Hollaway said she couldn’t pave the way for any development that is vulnerable to storm surge.

“I have a real hard time promoting the idea of placing structures southward of the seawall on such a narrow strip of land,” Hollaway said. “I have real reservations of the impact of not only the integrity of not only the seawall, but of the beach itself.”

Samantha Ketterer: 409-683-5241; or on Twitter at @sam_kett


(10) comments

Charlotte O'rourke

👍 to the three commissioners (Blair, Dreiss, Reinhart) that understand personal bias shouldn’t play a part in the planning decision making process. Follow the written rules. Let’s hope city council does better!

Tim Thompson

This is quickly becoming a big mess, the Planning Commission seemed to not be voting on whether to allow the easements but instead of whether or not they think a large development should be allowed on the beach, what's really the main issue here and where does the buck stop? Looks like it's gonna be up to Council, SOMEBODY is going to have to take responsibility on this and make a decision. Whether or not you agree with development, the vote shouldn't have been about that, it should have simply been about whether or not to allow abandoning the rights of way.

Connie Patterson

If the city abondons the right of ways, commercial development on that parcel is possible and very likely... if it doesn’t , it likely won’t... the easements belong to the city and citizens of Galveston. Ignoring this fact is an over simplification of the issue hoping no one will notice it.

Lisa Blair

The easements have no value to the city and citizens other than being used as a tool to attempt to stop private property owners from using their own property in ways that are legal and permitted. And that's just wrong.

Connie Patterson

The first comment was actually from Connie. Personally, I totally agree that for most all cases, the Planning Commission should rule based on the specifics of the case before them. In this particular case however, their decision is much more impactful then deciding to abandon a right of way for an alley in the middle of town. I also agree that property rights should be respected, but again, in this particular case, the decision has a large, almost irreversible, impact on what happens to a very unique and visible piece of property, i.e. a private beach in Texas. I think this is a special case that really needs a robust public debate, and a willingness to look beyond normal procedures and processes to fully explore more creative and visionary alternatives. The other aspect to this is that whatever a person's political persuasion and view on climate change/global warming, it is pretty indisputable that sea levels are rising, and will continue to rise. I just doesn't make a lot of sense to me to build more large structures outside the seawall, particularly as we push for a ring level/Ike dike to protect Galveston from those rising sea levels and more extreme weather events.

Charlotte O'rourke

The Planning Commission should ALWAYS rule on the case before it ... not speculate and prevent potential future requests that may or may not come before the Commission.

I think your comments reaffirm and validate the editorial opinion in today’s newspaper that the 4-3 planning commission decision was based on personal bias, and may be considered a legal taking of property .... the goal being to prevent ANY development on that private beach front property.

The LDR specifies rules for building on the south/east side of the seawall in zones, but that wasn’t the topic or case before the Commission. Unfortunately ... that is what the vote came down to, and the majority vote was arbitrary and capricious and unfair.

Connie Patterson

Being a limited government person, it pains me to say this, but I do believe that there are certain unique situations where the "greater public good and interest" has to be a major consideration. I suspect that is exactly what the other 4 commissioners felt as well, which I assume is within their purview as members of the Planning Commission.

Lisa Blair

I don’t think that individual commissioners can decide for themselves what constitutes the greater public good in a specific case. Isn’t that the very definition of arbitrary?

Charlotte O'rourke

“Arbitrary and Capricious Law and Legal Definition. ... There should be a clear error of judgment; an action not based upon consideration of relevant factors and so is arbitrary, capricious, an abuse of discretion or otherwise not in accordance with law or if it was taken without observance of procedure required by law.“

I think basing a decision on what MAY be built on a site and not the facts as presented on abandonment is the very definition of arbitrary and capricious .... especially since any proposed building would need to meet current LDR guidelines approved by our elected city council.

Connie Patterson

Depending on the specific wording of the charter of the Planning Commission, I could be convinced that the members overstepped their bounds on this issue. Reading Commissioner Hill's letter to the editor, she stated that the City Attorney's view of this is that the decision for abandonment must consider two questions - does the abandonment impede the traveling public and does the public have use for the land? In her view, it met the first question, but not the second. In her words, "I feel that our beach-dependent community should retain ownership of beach interests."

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