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La Marque community members, council reach consensus on chicken ordinance


Hours of discussion between city officials and La Marque residents culminated in a proposed chicken ordinance that attempted to reach a compromise between those in favor of looser restrictions regarding chickens within city limits and those opposed.

The ordinance was the result of several months of discussion surrounding the presence of chickens within city limits.

“We do live in a country whose foundation is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, so it would not be in the spirit of that to prohibit any community member from owning chickens if chickens make you happy,” Mayor Keith Bell said. “The other side of that is people who don’t own chickens obviously have that right.”

After listening to community input and some debate among council members, the council decided a coop would need to be at least 25 feet away from an occupied building or business. There also would need to be a run, and the coop and the run would need to have fences at least 4 feet high. There would be a cap of 25 hens per lot.

To own chickens, residents would need to purchase a $30 permit, which would be renewable each year for $15. Before a permit would be issued, there would be an inspection.

Finally, food would need to be kept in non-permeable storage bins.

Not up for debate was the prohibition of roosters within city limits.

The discussion included input from multiple community members who owned chickens, as well as several who were opposed to loosening the current ordinance. Under the current ordinance, fowl are prohibited within 100 feet of an occupied building.

And although not everyone got what they wanted, the ordinance was an example of democracy at work, Councilwoman Kimberley Yancy said.

“I don’t want anyone to feel like they lost,” she said. “It was a win.”

For Alanah Brown, who keeps chickens in her backyard and started a petition asking the city to change the ordinance, the ordinance was better than she had anticipated.

“I think most of us are happy we can keep our chickens,” she said.

But Brown was unhappy with the fee for the permit.

“It wouldn’t be a big deal, but you’re just singling out one animal in the city,” she said.

Problems surrounding the current ordinance have been ongoing for months, with some residents complaining the ordinance has been unevenly enforced and others claiming some of the complaints were done in malice.

A proposed ordinance presented at the Sept. 20 city council meeting did little to quell concerns among residents, prompting council to decide to discuss the ordinance with community members during a workshop.

The primary point of contention was the distance requirement. Chicken advocates said the requirement that chickens be kept at least 25 feet from the nearest property line, as was stated in the original proposed ordinance, was too restrictive and would exempt much of La Marque from keeping chickens.

“The distance rule that y’all are imparting on us is absolutely ridiculous with the size of the lots,” Katherine Herrin-Keith said during the meeting. “There’s no way that anybody in La Marque could have chickens.”

Although advocates suggested eliminating the distance requirement, the council ultimately settled on revising the ordinance to the coop needing to be at least 25 feet from the nearest residence, excluding the chickens’ owners.

Additionally, under the proposed ordinance, three violations would lead to the permit being revoked. Owners who had their permits revoked would not be able to own chickens for another five years.

But not all concerns were resolved during the workshop. Some residents brought up concerns about other species of fowl, such as guinea hens and ducks. The council opted to visit that topic at a later time.

Several residents, like Brown, are still facing pending charges for allegedly violating the current ordinance. The new ordinance will not be retroactive, but it may be possible for the charges to be dismissed after the new ordinance is passed, although that will be up to the courts, city officials said.

Monday night’s reading was the first reading of the proposed ordinance. A second reading still needs to be held before the ordinance is passed.

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City of Galveston considers selling high-value 61st Street land


Galveston might consider selling pieces of the land where the city recycling center sits, consolidating those operations and getting some high-value property back on the tax rolls.

The proposal is a continuation of several years of discussion about moving the recycling center, which occupies prime real estate across 61st Street from a major island shopping center anchored by Target and The Home Depot.

The Galveston Recycle Center, 702 61st St., sits on about five lots, according to the Galveston Central Appraisal District.

City officials are talking about consolidating recycling center operations onto a smaller footprint and selling off the lots it doesn’t need, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.

The 11-acre space is pretty big compared to what the city actually uses, she said.

How exactly the recycling center would consolidate still is undecided, she said. City administrators would survey the lots to determine the best use of space, she said.

Recycling is expected to cost the city about $820,000 this year, according to budget documents. The city also expects to collect 12,250 tons of recyclable material this year, 19 percent more than the 10,300 in 2021 and 92 percent more than the 6,381 in 2020, according to city records.

Deciding whether to sell city land or make long-term changes at the center rests with the city council.

The city for years has talked about selling the 61st Street real estate to a private developer or company in hopes of getting the property back on the tax rolls.

Across the street from major retailers like Target and The Home Depot, the property is in an area with potentially high tax value, Mayor Craig Brown said.

“That would be taking that land that’s not on the tax rolls now, allowing it to get on the tax rolls,” Brown said.

The assessed value of the five lots is about $465,000, according to the central appraisal district.

At times, city officials have discussed moving the center to a new location, either on Harborside Drive, where the city’s solid-waste transfer station is, or to Lennox Avenue, the site of an old incinerator facility that was torn down in 2019. That land is limited in its use because of chemical contamination.

But that’s not the plan right now, Brown said.

“This could change, but they’re planning on selling only a portion of the land and keeping the portion to the north of the current recycling center,” Brown said. “It’ll be a different shaped recycling center.”

The 61st Street location also is a convenient place for residents to get to, because it’s next to a high-trafficked shopping district, Barnett said.

The city hasn’t placed any of the recycling center lots out to bid or sale, Barnett said.

The city is advertising for a firm to build a new mobile office building at the recycling center. The current office is aging and needs to be replaced, Barnett said.

At the end of the month, the city council is scheduled to vote on approval an appraisal for the site.

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County justice center in Galveston could get new wing in $11 million expansion


A major expansion to the Galveston County Justice Center could cost more than $11 million.

Officials last week saw the first proposals for an expansion to the facility, 600 59th St. in Galveston.

The county is considering expanding the justice center to add space for offices, including the county’s pretrial bond office and its mental health court, which were created or significantly expanded since the county opened the justice center in 2005.

The expansion has been a long-simmering project. In November 2020, the county hired a design firm to perform a needs assessment at the justice center and develop design concepts for a new building.

Commissioners on Oct. 4 heard a presentation from Houston-based architecture firm iGET Services about the needs assessment along with what the expansion could look like.

The company recommended building a four-story, 30,000-square-foot expansion in a field on the west side of the building. Such an expansion would have minimal effect on the operation of the current courts building, officials said.

Architects considered simply adding a fifth floor to the top of the justice center. Adding another floor would be “very difficult” and “very expensive,” however, said Robert Burnham, the company’s principal architect.

“It’s going to be a pretty tough challenge,” Burnham said. “It’s possible, but it’s going to come at a pretty high cost.”

Adding a new floor would cost between $50 and $100 a square foot more than other options, Burnham said.

Expanding on the west side of the justice center would break up the symmetry of the roughly V-shaped building. The expansion could be designed in a way that complemented the existing building, Burnham said.

Once the expansion begins, it could take up to 46 weeks to complete, according to estimates presented to commissioners.

Commissioners didn’t vote on anything regarding the expansion Oct. 4. It’s unclear when the project might come up for a vote.

Merck asks FDA to authorize promising anti-COVID pill


Drugmaker Merck asked U.S. regulators Monday to authorize its pill for treating COVID-19 in what would add an entirely new and easy-to-use weapon to the world’s arsenal against the pandemic.

If cleared by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration — a decision that could come in a matter of weeks — it would be the first pill shown to treat the illness. All other FDA-backed treatments against COVID-19 require an IV or injection.

An antiviral pill that people could take at home to reduce their symptoms and speed recovery could prove groundbreaking, easing the caseload on U.S. hospitals and helping to curb outbreaks in poorer countries with weak health care systems. It would also bolster the two-pronged approach to the pandemic: treatment, by way of medication, and prevention, primarily through vaccinations.

The FDA will scrutinize company data on the safety and effectiveness of the drug, molnupiravir, before rendering a decision.

Merck and its partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutic said they specifically asked the agency to grant emergency use for adults with mild-to-moderate COVID-19 who are at risk for severe disease or hospitalization. That is roughly the way COVID-19 infusion drugs are used.

“The value here is that it’s a pill so you don’t have to deal with the infusion centers and all the factors around that,” said Dr. Nicholas Kartsonis, a senior vice president with Merck’s infectious disease unit. “I think it’s a very powerful tool to add to the toolbox.”

The company reported earlier this month that the pill cut hospitalizations and deaths by half among patients with early symptoms of COVID-19. The results were so strong that independent medical experts monitoring the trial recommended stopping it early.

Side effects were similar between patients who got the drug and those in a testing group who received a dummy pill. But Merck has not publicly detailed the types of problems reported, which will be a key part of the FDA’s review.

Top U.S. health officials continue to push vaccinations as the best way to protect against COVID-19.

“It’s much, much better to prevent yourself from getting infected than to have to treat an infection,” Dr. Anthony Fauci said while discussing Merck’s drug last week.

Still, some 68 million eligible Americans remain unvaccinated, underscoring the need for effective drugs to control future waves of infection.

The prospect of a COVID-19 pill comes amid other encouraging signs: New cases per day in the United States have dropped below 100,000 on average for the first time in over two months, and deaths are running at about 1,700 a day, down from more than 2,000 three weeks ago.

Also, the average number of vaccinations dispensed per day has climbed past 1 million, an increase of more than 50 percent over the past two weeks, driven by the introduction of booster shots and workplace vaccine requirements.

Still, heath authorities are bracing for another possible surge as cold weather drives more people indoors.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, health experts have stressed the need for a convenient pill. The goal is for something similar to Tamiflu, the 20-year-old flu medication that shortens the illness by a day or two and blunts the severity of symptoms like fever, cough and stuffy nose.

Three FDA-authorized antibody drugs have proved highly effective at reducing COVID-19 deaths, but they are expensive, hard to produce and require specialty equipment and health professionals to deliver.

Assuming FDA authorization, the U.S. government has agreed to buy enough of the pills to treat 1.7 million people, at a price of roughly $700 for each course of treatment. That’s less than half the price of the antibody drugs purchased by the U.S. government — over $2,000 per infusion — but still more expensive than many antiviral pills for other conditions.

Merck’s Kartsonis said in an interview that the $700 figure does not represent the final price for the medication.

Boosted, newly vaxxed growing in almost equal numbers in Galveston County


In the nearly two months COVID-19 booster vaccines have been widely offered in Galveston County, more than 20,000 people have received a third dose, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Since Aug. 13, 20,065 people have received booster shots, according to the department.

In the same time period, more than 23,000 people joined the ranks of the fully vaccinated, according to publicly available vaccination tracking data.

The rates of people with booster shots and the newly vaccinated could help Galveston County avoid another surge in COVID cases this winter, said Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s local health authority. It’s too soon to say whether the combination of fully vaccinated people and already infected people in the county is enough to stop a serious surge, however, he said.

“We’re trying to figure out how to test that,” Keiser said. “We’re just getting the numbers on that.”

The Galveston County Health District opened a drive-through vaccination clinic Aug. 18. Since then, the clinic has administered 10,090 booster doses, officials said. Although boosters are available at the health district hub, they’re also available at private pharmacies and other medical providers.

As of Monday morning, 64 percent of eligible people in Galveston County and 54 percent of the county’s total population were fully vaccinated, according to state and local data.

About 167,000 people in the county aren’t fully vaccinated. More than one-third of that group includes children who are younger than age 12 who aren’t eligible to receive COVID vaccinations.

Since August, large groups of people who received the Pfizer COVID vaccine earlier this year have been declared eligible to receive COVID booster shots, which can help address waning effectiveness of the shot that occurs over time.

As of Monday, booster shots were open to people 65 and older; people age 18 or older with underlying medical conditions; those in long-term care facilities; and front-line workers at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission.

The final group includes hospital workers, teachers, people who work in jails and prisons, public transit works and grocery store employees, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A smaller number of immunocompromised people are eligible to receive a third shot of the Moderna vaccine, according to CDC guidelines.

The rate of newly identified cases of COVID-19 has been decreasing for about a month, according to the Galveston County Health District. As of Monday, there were 2,364 identified active cases of COVID-19 in the county, the lowest total since July 31.

Active cases peaked at 5,990 on Sept. 3, according to the health district.

COVID-related hospitalizations also have decreased. Since Oct. 4, less than 15 percent of hospital beds in Galveston County and the surrounding region were being used by people being treated for COVID-19.

The 15 percent hospitalization rate was at one time used as the state’s definition of an area with high-levels of vaccination. High hospitalization required businesses to limit their capacity or close their doors entirely,

During the recent surge of cases, state and local officials didn’t institute new mandates as an attempt to stop the spread of COVID.

Trauma Service Area R, the nine-county region that includes Galveston County, spent 69 consecutive days with a high hospitalizations rate, according to state data. It was the longest stretch of high-hospitalization days since the pandemic began in March 2020. Local hospitalizations peaked on Aug. 29, when 40 percent of hospital patients in the region were being treated for COVID-19.

Fishing nets, lines, plastics and wood rest on a pallet during a beach clean-up by members of the Mountain Ocean Project at a beach near Seawolf Park in Galveston.