A majority bloc of the Galveston Planning Commission grossly exceeded its mandate Tuesday by ignoring a city staff recommendation and voting against a request that the city abandon 25 public easements on the beach between Sixth and 10th streets.
The vote was an example of public policy driven by personal bias, rather than guided by the rule of law. The vote was wrong and is mitigated only by the fact that the commission’s decision was merely advisory. It recommended that the city council also reject the request to abandon the rights of way.
The council is expected to make a final decision on the issue later this month. If the council intends to follow the commission’s recommendation, it needs to come up with better justifications than were apparent Tuesday.
Commissioners in the majority — Carol Hollaway, Cate Black, Eugene Cook and Jeffrey Hill — all had reasons for their votes. The problem is their reasons had nothing directly to do with the issue at hand.
The only relevant question at issue Tuesday was whether the city of Galveston planned to use the rights of way to build roads or install other public infrastructure. City officials have been clear that there are no such plans — that there was no “municipal purpose or contemplated municipal use that would prevent the abandonment from moving forward.”
And that should be the case. If the city built roads on these rights of way, which are south of the seawall, it would be building roads into the Gulf of Mexico. It’s hardly ever good government policy to spend public money building roads to nowhere.
The commissioners didn’t vote in answer to the one question at hand, however. They voted as they did because they oppose a mixed-use development that might be built if the rights of way are released.
Commissioner Black outlined the problem pretty well: “I recognize that the criteria for abandonment is valid, but I think this is a different situation because it’s a beach,” Black said.
Unfortunately, no matter what the commissioner thought, the situation was not different. The same rules applied to these rights of way that apply to every other right of way. The question wasn’t what the commissioners thought about the possible consequences of the abandonment, but whether the application met the criteria, which even Black agrees it did.
The majority bloc Tuesday answered a question nobody was asking, which is an excellent example of arbitrary action.
It’s important to point out that the city doesn’t own the property at issue. Various private interests own the property. The city merely maintains a right of access and use to further some public good. When the city can no longer argue it has a real expectation to use the easements, it has no claim on the private property.
The commissioners have the right to oppose the development, but they didn’t have the right to allow those personal biases about a proposed development to direct their votes, and neither will the city council.
The council will need reasons that actually exist in the rules to make a similar decision or it could face legal action for having committed an illegal taking of private property.
Tuesday’s vote also offers an opportunity for those opposed to the mixed-use development.
After the vote, Randy Williams, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee for the estate of Sonya Porretto, said he would ask the court for authority to sell some of the property at auction. Opponents ought to buy it, then they can legitimately call the shots about how it’s used.
• Michael A. Smith