GALVESTON — It has for years been one of the most coveted and sometimes controversial pieces of real estate in Galveston — 600 contiguous acres of open land known as the East End Flats on the island’s easternmost end.
It’s the largest vacant tract behind the seawall. And in the boom days, everyone from homegrown developers to wealthy Dubai investors envisioned glittering communities catering to vacationers and residents. But there were deterrents, perhaps the greatest being that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers controls the flats, which for years has been a dredge-spoils dump and will be until 2046 unless the city can obtain an early release.
Last week, a task force including City Manager Michael Kovacs, Councilwoman Elizabeth Beeton and resident Jos Wristers sought to enlist as an ally the Port of Galveston, the island entity most affected by what happens to the silt and sand disposal site, in obtaining that release.
The Wharves Board of Trustees, which governs the port, agreed to support the city’s efforts on the condition that doing so didn’t cost the port any money or hinder use of the dredge spoils site. The board also agreed to add Vice Chairman Edward J. Walsh III to the city task force.
The corps keeps the ship channel navigable by dredging and dumping bottom sediments on spoil sites such as the East End Flats.
The city wanted to protect the port’s interest in maintaining the Galveston Ship Channel but also to allow some future developer to expand the city’s tax base by building on the site, task-force officials said.
Protecting port’s interest
“It would not make sense for the city to push for the release of the flats if that were to come at the expense of the port,” Beeton said.
If the wharves board considered the idea hostile to its best interest, the task force would take that information back to the city, Beeton said.
But if the city were going to try to have the East End Flats developed, it needed to own it, Beeton said.
In the past when the city issued requests for proposals from developers, a common response has been the city needed to take control of the land, Beeton said.
John Samuels, a principal of Translux Ltd., who considered developing the property, said in 2007: “This project requires a multiuse approach, which requires the leader and the prime developer, at least at the beginning, to be Galveston itself ...”
Under federal law, the city can only acquire the site in 100-acre pieces, must pay fair market value for it and provide the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers another dredge spoils site.
The city could also work with Congress to give up the land at better terms, however.
A possible option is for the city to obtain control of the land and grant the corps an easement, allowing the site to be used until it’s filled. No one knows how long that might take. The corps would continue to maintain it at no cost or burden to the port, which is often the case in other Gulf Coast communities, Beeton said.
The burden of the easement likely would lower the market value of the land, which would benefit the city, while maintaining the disposal site until it was filled, Beeton said.
But the task force also wanted to know whether the port would be willing to devise a plan to fill the site to its capacity at a faster clip.
Attempting a rapid filling of the flats, which are bounded by Seawall Drive, the Houston Ship Channel and the Coast Guard Station/Lindale subdivision, could be costly, Mierzwa said.
Because of a tight federal budget, the corps lacks funding to do all the dredging it needs to do, Mierzwa said. To make best use of maintenance funds, the corps uses a hopper dredge and deposits spoils offshore, rather than using a more expensive hydraulic method to pump onto the East End Flats.
If the port encouraged the corps to use the more expensive method, it might get less of its channel dredged, Mierzwa said.
$3 million more
Disposing spoils from the port’s own maintenance dredging of berths and slips on the flats wouldn’t make economic sense, Mierzwa said.
When the port dredges the harbor channel, it deposits the spoils on Pelican Island. The port contributes between 80,000 cubic yards and 100,000 cubic yards every 12 months to 18 months on Pelican Island at a cost to the port of about $1 million. Most of the dredge spoils come from the port’s West End. To pump the same spoils onto flats would cost about $4 million, Mierzwa said.
The task force also wanted to gauge the port’s interest in developing on the East End Flats.
But Mierzwa said that prospect seemed unlikely given outcry over the years against some proposed port projects.
“I kind of question what the port’s going to do over there,” Mierzwa said. “We talked about putting a container facility on Pelican Island, and we get a lot of pushback from certain segments of the community.
“They’re talking about developing the East End Flats, and I’m going to put some container terminal over there next to probably some other development that’s over there. Come on.”
But port officials, in need of more berth space for passenger liners, did say building a cruise-ship terminal on the property was a possibility.
Besides control of the land, obstacles include the huge expense of stabilizing the ground.
In May 2008, the city council approved a contract between Sullivan Interests and the city’s Redevelopment Authority, authorizing the company to lobby the federal government to give up the land.
Had they been successful, the Sullivans would have gotten right of first refusal to develop the land.
But Beeton attacked the contract and succeeded in getting the Redevelopment Authority to kill it.
In the bitter fight, Beeton asserted the Sullivans got the flats contract through their connections to former members of the Redevelopment Authority, who were mostly city staffers. Before the agreement was scrapped, the Sullivans estimated it would have cost $75 million to stabilize the flats.
The city envisions some recreational uses for the flats and wants to study using the spoils for beach reconstruction projects. There were no immediate development prospects for the site, task force officials said.
Wharves trustees said they believed it was prudent to work with the city to protect their interests, and city officials said they wanted to avoid conflicts in their pursuit to gain control of the flats. The port is a utility of the city. But the entities rarely work in concert.
“I think we are entering into an era where we are cooperating like we possibly haven’t seen in a while,” Kovacs told the wharves board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities to work together.”