The Galveston City Council closed the door Thursday on a long-standing debate by releasing several beach front public easements, despite persistent opposition from a bloc wanting to stop a development on Porretto Beach.
The city council voted 5-2 to abandon dozens of rights of way on and around the beach from Sixth to 10th streets. A group of property owners requested the rights of way be abandoned, with the intention of later building a multiuse boardwalk on the land.
While the majority of council members ultimately decided the abandonment vote came down to private property rights and the city’s intended use for the easements, many residents instead took issue with the boardwalk and its unknown environmental effects on the beach.
Some council members said they were setting aside their personal preferences and opposition to the development in voting to abandon the rights of way.
“I don’t want to see the property developed either,” Mayor Jim Yarbrough said. “You think you’d vote your personal convictions all the time. I don’t. I wish I could.”
City Councilmen Craig Brown and Mike Doherty, of Districts 2 and 4, voted against the abandonment.
Doherty cited uncertainties with the property’s value, and Brown said he couldn’t determine whether a community benefit existed in abandoning the easements.
“I can’t decide if that’s the case because we can’t be assured of what’s going to be on that property,” Brown said.
The rights of way, which stretch over almost 5.5 acres on the south side of the seawall, will now be appraised and sold to the property owners, Yarbrough said.
Developer WRCB L.P. has offered to buy the beach for a proposed $6 million. Whether that occurs remains to be seen, Yarbrough said.
“We will deal with the next issue as best we can,” Yarbrough said. “We’re going to call their bluff probably. We’re going to see if they can close.”
Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee Randy Williams has been trying to sell the beach to clear Sonya Porretto’s estate, with the rights of way included.
“As the mayor said, we will have to go through the appraisal process,” Williams said after the decision. “I hope that doesn’t take long but we are moving forward again.”
Early in 2017, the council took up debate over the abandonments of 10 of the rights of way. City staff members said the city council voted in 1978 to abandon the easements to Henry Porretto, but said no proof could be found showing the proper paperwork was filed to make the transaction official.
That action was discussed and deferred for months, until Williams and surrounding property owners submitted a new application for the abandonment of those 10 rights of way as well as several others.
Thursday’s public hearing lasted for more than an hour, and just two people spoke in entirely favor of abandonment. One of those was an applicant, and another was a nearby property owner.
Opponents were concerned about the unknown environmental effect a development would have on the beach, including its vulnerability to hurricanes. Other people complained about potentially blocked beach views and possible threats to beach access.
“At this point, we are looking at something that is basically going to change the landscape of this island, period,” Planning Commissioner Eugene Cook said.
The debate has invoked previous arguments about public and private property rights on Porretto Beach. The land was the subject of two decades of disputes between owners and the Texas General Land Office, which oversees public beaches.
In July 2015, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the land office didn’t own the property, making it more attractive to potential buyers. Most of Galveston’s beaches are owned by the state and managed by the Park Board of Trustees.
Resident Susan Fennewald said she fears a development on the beach would threaten beach ecology, including vegetation.
“This is unlike any other abandonment the city has ever made,” Fennewald said.
Scenic Galveston, a local environmental organization, requested at the meeting to defer the vote while it worked to buy the beach.
City Councilman Frank Maceo, who called Porretto Beach a “black eye” to the seawall, said he didn’t think it was fair for opponents to force the city to scuttle a deal, decrease the value of the land and buy the property themselves.
“I won’t be a part of a system that mucks up another deal,” Maceo said.
Galveston Planning Commission recommended earlier this month that the city decline to abandon the rights of way, spurring debate over what constitutes abandonment.
City Attorney Don Glywasky said abandonments should be granted if they don’t impede the traveling public, if the public doesn’t have an intended use for the easements and if it’s in the community benefit to abandon the easements, not with regard to a specific development.
Because the city has said it has no use for the easements, which are land markers used to place utilities and roads, Maceo said the abandonments should be granted.
“There’s nothing outside of the law that they’re asking us to do right now,” Maceo said. “I do not see a public benefit of hanging on to these rights of way.”