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.”

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


(17) comments

Ron Binkley

I feel sorry for the Appraiser that is assigned this appraisal. Where do you find comparable sales for a private beach in a state that has very little private beaches? How do you make the adjustments?

Kelly Naschke

Congrats to the council members that voted with legal ethic. Shame on everyone else that voted with emotion and tried to stop this initiative based solely on their own ideology that was contrary to ethic legality.

Steve Fouga

Leroy, I doubt ethics had anything to do with the vote. This is a pro-development Council, and I think they want to see Poretto developed. That's my take.

Kelly Naschke

Regardless of your "take" Steve, they followed the letter of the law. That's what I expect out of council. And what's wrong with development? The entire island was elevated and a seawall built over 100 years ago. Galveston wouldn't even be here without forward thInking "developers". This island is rooted in development from its very inception. Had Elizabeth Beeton been alive in those days....there wouldn't even be a a Galveston. If these preservationist are so enthralled by undeveloped beaches...why did they move to Galveston and not some deserted outpost on the Texas coast where you don't see development for literally hundreds of miles????

Steve Fouga

Are you lecturing me, Leroy? I think the Council used the "letter of the law" as an excuse to vote for what they wanted anyway.

I'm not anti-development or pro. Development should be addressed case-by-case. I hope the developer puts something I can use on Poretto Beach. 😎

Jarvis Buckley

Very emotional issue. Council voted correctly I believe. Time will tell .

Bill Cochrane

Ron, determining the value of the rights of ways that were abandoned by the city should be a simple, easy and quick deduction. The appraiser should use the criteria used by the city to decide if it should be abandoned.
The rights of way appear to be worthless to the City as stated by the City Manager.-
"The city owns the rights of way but has never intended to use them. The city’s position that it has no intention to use the rights away is usually enough reason to agree to abandon them”, City Manager Brian Maxwell said.
If the rights of way are worthless, and the City Council voted, and the majority agreed that they are worthless, the answer is they should be abandoned. At no cost to anyone. No value = no charge.

Ron Shelby

Another property taxed at a value of $6 million would be nice for the roles.

Charlotte O'rourke

No one should be embarrassed by their vote or accused of impropriety.

Galveston citizens love beaches, and is one of the reasons we live here.

I would have voted for abandonment even though I personally prefer a natural looking beach. I would have voted that way because I don’t own the property, the Texas Supreme Court ruled the property was private property, and the city has no intention of using the rights of ways.

I also believe the rights of way were abandoned previously and the city was most likely at fault for not filing the paperwork as even the ORDINANCE was not filed appropriately in the records.

A preference for a natural looking beach does not mean a neglected beach, eyesore or place for junk. A natural beach is not a world class beach if it is a giant parking lot with cars dripping stuff on the sand.

Anyone interested in collecting funds to help the public beaches we already own ... I would volunteer to help with time and/or money. My time is more plentiful than my money, but I am still willing to give what I can.

Stewart Beach currently has a drainage issue with an estimated price tag of $6 million dollars. It also needs a new Pavilion. Beach maintenance is costly but worth the price.

Erosion and subsidence are real problems, but it is a greater issue on the west end and shouldn’t be used as an excuse to stop development on private property on the east end where the beach is actually growing.

I think the city made the right legal call, and each council member regardless of their vote did an admirable job of listening to the public and then voting on a complex and controversial issue.

Kelly Naschke

Well stated Charlotte.

Bill Broussard

She was talking to you and your comment, Leroy.

Bill Broussard

"I think the city made the right legal call, and each council member regardless of their vote did an admirable job of listening to the public and then voting on a complex and controversial issue." I watched this and I would say that the Council sat through the public comment but most did not listen. When a council member says they cannot see anything that was in the public interest with the public sitting right in front of them and having spoken for an hour, there is something just a bit off in that comment. not that his vote would have changed I'm sure but the comment was twenty degrees off of the reality in the Chamber and signaled that the council member might have kept quite but did not listen.

My bet: This is not over. I would not be surprised if the buyer canceled the contract at this point. Comments by the trustee suggests they are expecting the same. It will then go to auction and folks who don't want a dollar store there will have the chance to buy. We shall see as this plays out in the free market.

Wylie Evans

In real estate their is the rule of Highest and Best Use. With the City owning the ROW makes the property remainder useless for future development. ...Let the ROW go and then the City and widen the tax base and Gods only knows the Planning and Zoning Board can ramp up on the new property owner being OCD control freaks as they are.

Bill Broussard

I have to say I've listened to all of this about property rights, windfall taxes, beach private property for weeks now.

Here is a Historical Fact: Exactly the same thing was done with Marquette. A slimey developer came down from Chicago and pitched a tax windfall to the Council. The Council was warned by over 200 citizens that night that this was destructive to Galveston and to the West End in particular but all Steve and Lyda Ann could see were tax dollar signs. The decision that night joined a long list of council decisions where residents were treated as children that didn't know enough to be on the Mayors council or have any substance to their conversation. Council knew best.

Within three weeks of the vote, Marquette let Steve announce the $1MM dollar windfall in taxes due to the City and ran to Galveston County and filed an Ag. Exemption on the land giving Galveston essentially nothing and never telling their "partner" the City it was happening until it was a done deal with the County. Steve looked baffled and just a bit stupid when it hit the press.

Marquette then tried to float three different proposals past the ACOE and was turned down on each and every one. Finally, they bought a grant writer and placed them in Artis Boat to get Federal and State money to buy the land back from them...after declaring bankruptcy. Much to Artist boats credit they pulled it off and the land will be used for children's education and never pay the taxes the city promised.

The only part of the Marquette windfall that might be realized is in itself a disgrace. After five years and having the SUP granted by the City run out of time, they went back to the Planning Commission to secure an extension on what remained of their grand scheme. Then, a few months later, they spun the beach side property not to a hotel like they promised but to the Chairman of the Planning Commission who had just voted for an SUP extension. You could not have a more public display of council stupidity plus good old Galveston graph. In the end, the Planning Commissioner will get a little bit more wealthy but Galveston has never gotten--never will get-- the boost our City Manager said we would, residents proved to be not that stupid after all and everyone on this Council has not learned a single thing about anything it would seem. Next move: Developer cancels the contract that drove this whole mess and goes to auction for a lower price.

Paul Sivon

A perverse view of property rights emerged from the Council meeting. The City Council's vote to cede the City's assets and rights did not protect the current owner's right to develop; they have no plans to develop, just to sell. Instead, the process was a mechanism to increase and imply an increased market value of the land for the seller and to leverage the release of the easements under the guise of avoiding a "take". Until a development by the actual property owner (not the straw-man hypothetical owner) and development is defined, how does a City Manager know the easements will not be needed?

Bill Broussard

I have to stand with Paul on this. I don't have trouble accepting the decision because I don't think this is the last we've heard of it. I have trouble with the way the decision was pitched, the conduct of City Council and of City Management getting to the decision and the way in which council members demeaned the actual functional intelligence of residents once again while betraying their own lack of study or thought to the issue.

Council commentary is supposed to be thoughtful, educated and well thought through. instead we get our elected officials using the chair as a pulpit to talk down to the very people that voted for them with obvious irrelevant information and disregard for the people who "brung em". Long before Galveston was awash in sales tax money or Park Board fees and city officials were bringing in excess of $150,000.00 a year in salary, some of us paid our taxes throughout the down times and I would think council members might remember that. Their bonds are on our credit card and not just this recent bond, but the one Lyda Ann took on without a public vote to pay off the Sullivan's for Evia.

What about a Mayor who gave his wife $250,000.00 of IDC funds so she could take State Representatives and wealthy citizens on a boondoggle to The Netherlands so they could come back and tell tales of the wondrous whore houses they saw while there.

Never mind future windfalls for a moment, how bout the people who have lived and provided sustenance to this Island years before any Beachtown debacle or slimey developers came to extract Houston wealth. One would think those who paid the real bills-- and have for years-- might be extended some courtesy other than deception, false theories of the law and a glaring disrespect for us. One would think.....

Charlotte O'rourke

I think Council did listen to the public, but the public had differing views. We don’t live in a democracy where everything is by ballot or referendum. We live in a republic or representational democracy if you prefer .... which is impossible to tell the actual percentage of people for or against an idea without going to the ballot box. Many people are silent or don’t express their views in public and they may in actuality be the majority.

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