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Fight over ownership of Galveston's Babe's Beach hits courts

GALVESTON

The Galveston Park Board of Trustees filed a lawsuit Friday that leaders assert is necessary to protect a public investment of about $75 million that went into building Babe’s Beach and to ensure planned reconstructions projects worth about another $50 million or so aren’t derailed.

The petition, filed in the 212th Judicial District Court, seeks a temporary restraining order against two people who claim ownership of beach land and two people who operate rental businesses on that land, one of whom is a park board trustee.

The lawsuit raises questions about the lines between public and private beach and whether land claimed by the Gulf of Mexico and restored with public money returns to private owners or remains under state ownership.

The petition asserts owners Ted O’Rourke and Gulf Properties and vendors Frank Maceo, and Jason Worthen, a park board trustee, are preventing the park board from accessing public lands and of operating concessions on a public beach.

“Defendants now claim private property rights of the public beach, which was restored by renourishment,” court documents assert. “Defendants are preventing the park board from operating under its lease with the state of Texas to operate on the public beach by placing unauthorized vendors on the public beach.”

A 20-year surface lease signed with the land office in 2015 gives the park board permission to conduct certain business on state-owned property along the seawall from 61st Street to the western end of the seawall.

The lease lets the park board enter contracts or franchise agreements to promote recreation.

Recently, however, owners of land that had been submerged began claiming ownership of slices of beach and have started entering agreements with companies that rent umbrellas and chairs, without the typically required permit from the park board.

The Texas Open Beaches Act gives Texans a right to access the ocean through a public easement along the water line. While the state owns much of the property along the beach, some private lands fall onto the sand as well, like the privately-held Porretto Beach.

PUBLIC MONEY

For the park board, the concern isn’t about the concession agreements, which don’t amount to much in the park board budget, CEO Kelly de Schaun said.

Instead, the park board worries the claims of private ownership threaten the board’s ability to gather public money to rebuild beaches, she said.

“We are the first institution in the line to defend the public beach, to defend the nourishment act,” de Schaun said.

The park board has acquired millions of outside funding in the past seven years to pump hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand dredged from the ship channel onto Babe’s Beach, the area between 61st Street and the western end of the seawall. Before the 2015 project, there was no beach in that area.

“These assertions of private property put into jeopardy those plans,” de Schaun said.

Reached this week, Maceo said he would continue to operate on the beach, he said. He’s operating a chair rental business on someone else’s Babe’s Beach land, he said.

“I’m a little upset that the park board had gone out and leased land that is privately owned,” Maceo said.

Gulf Properties representatives couldn’t be reached Friday.

‘INHERITANCE FROM ME’

One such piece of beach near 89th Street is listed in the Galveston Central Appraisal District as owned by Wharves Board of Galveston Trustee Ted O’Rourke.

O’Rourke acquired the property years ago from a family friend, he said.

“I’m leaving it to my grandchildren and that’s going to be their inheritance from me,” O’Rourke said.

Long-held state practice has asserted that land once submerged because of natural erosion becomes state land by default.

The Texas General Land Office, which enforces the open beaches act, declined to comment for this article.

O’Rourke has leased the land he asserts owning to Jason Worthen, a park board trustee and owner of rental company Gulf Coast Water Sports.

Worthen had held park board leases for years, but decided to go with this new business model, he said.

“I don’t care who I pay,” Worthen said. “I want to make sure I’m paying the right person.

“It’s my business and it’s my fiduciary responsibility as a trustee,” Worthen said.

‘YOU’VE GOT THIS PRINCIPLE’

“Babe’s is very clearly a public beach and there are not a lot of other places along the coastline that is clearly taxpayer funded,” de Schaun said.

Spending public money on private land has traditionally raised questions, said Steve Schulz, a Galveston attorney who has worked on beach-related issues.

The state has delayed or called off beach building on the West End before for similar worries.

“You’ve got this principle that you’re not supposed to be spending public money on private property unless there’s some agreement with the private property owner and there’s some benefit to the state,” Schulz said.

O’Rourke, however, doesn’t see a problem. The sand isn’t for one person, but to protect against storm surge, he said.

“They’re putting the sand there to protect the residents of Galveston,” O’Rourke said.

That thinking isn’t completely unsubstantiated, said Matthew Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law.

“You can’t spend public money only to benefit some private individual or entity,” Festa said. “It happens all the time when there are benefits to private owners that are also deemed to be in the public interest.”

DRAWING A LINE

The property owners have been paying taxes on the properties, according to the Galveston Central Appraisal District.

The total is only a few dollars each year, according to the district.

“Technically, they still own it,” Chief Appraiser Tommy Watson said. “A lot of the property lines go out to the water.”

Ownership on paper doesn’t mean those people can develop or do anything with that property, however, he said.

Determining the line between public and private on rebuilt beach requires a beach survey, Schulz said.

Before any projects on the beach that are meant prevent erosion — like beach building or construction of breakwaters and dunes — the project managers have to get a survey to determine the mean high-tide line, he said.

That line, essentially where high tide falls on average, draws the line between what’s private and what’s part of the public easement, he said.

The park board’s 2015 lease from the state notes the “line of mean high tide at the time of the pre-project survey intersects the rock rip-rap at the base of the seawall.”

LONG DEBATE

Debates about where the private land ends and the public beach starts aren’t new to Galveston.

Porretto Beach, between Sixth and 10th streets, was wrapped up for years in a lawsuit over ownership. Owner Sonya Porretto’s father, Henry Peter Porretto, won the 2015 Texas Supreme Court case.

In the landmark case 2012 Severance v. Patterson, the courts eliminated the concept of a “rolling” public easement that moved inland as beaches eroded, automatically resetting the line between public and private beaches.

Plaintiff Carol Severance brought the lawsuit after Hurricane Ike in 2008 drastically changed the landscape of the West End.

GRADUAL OR ABRUPT

Now, however, that Severance case, which focused on rapid erosion, could apply to this case of rapid accretion or laying of sand, Festa said.

“It seems to me that the very doctrine that caused the government entity heartburn in the Severance case might possibly be used in their favor now,” Festa said.

If the property grew little by little, rather than all at once, the property owners might have more claim to the land, Festa said.


News
editor's pick centerpiece featured
Island conservationists hope to help monarch butterflies survive

The monarch butterfly population has been facing a steady decline in recent years, and the species this month was put on an international organization’s list of threatened species, classifying it as endangered.

Their arrival on the threatened species list alarmed locals who understand their importance in nature and have worked to create habitats to help the species survive.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature last week declared the migratory monarch butterfly endangered. That means the species is now considered to have a very high risk of extinction in the wild.

There are a number of factors contributing to the decline in monarch populations and reasons for the species to make the international organization’s so-called red list, said Denice Franke, a Galveston County Master Gardener.

“The most obvious of those being the decreased natural habitats for the monarchs,” Franke said.

Large-scale threats from pesticides and global climate change also are factors in the decline.

For many, monarchs, with their wings of deep orange with black borders, are a thing of beauty. But their existence also is vital to humans.

As pollinators, the monarch butterfly migration across the continent provides an invaluable service, essential for many ecosystems to thrive, experts said.

It’s thanks to pollinators, such as butterflies, bees and other insects, that we have many of the flowers and dietary staples that we enjoy, like squash and blueberries, according to the The Nature Conservancy.

Monarch butterflies are also an important food source for birds, small animals and other insects.

There are things people in the county can do to help reverse the decline as they garden and landscape, experts say.

Franke owns a number of native pollinator habitats in Galveston. The habitats are put in place to eliminate plants that don’t provide habitat, and replace them with plants that will provide for and benefit those insects.

“Our green spaces are slowly going away when we develop neighborhoods,” Franke said. “People need to rethink how they landscape their homes. They are mowing their lawns too low and eliminating flowers that can provide for monarchs.”

Another issue contributing to the ongoing threat to the monarch population is milkweed.

Tropical milkweed is incredibly abundant and the easiest to grow, Franke said. But monarch advocates highly discourage people from planting this non-native milkweed species.

“Tropical milkweed promotes growth of a parasite, Ophryocystis elektroscirrha, if it’s not pruned back to 4 inches,” Vicki Blythe, a member of the San Jacinto Community Garden said.

Urbanization and agriculture is on an incline, which has significantly reduced the population of native-growing milkweed.

Members of the Community Garden have a goal of moving away from selling tropical milkweed, and encourage people to buy seeds to plant native milkweed, which poses no threat to monarchs.

“We discovered a new threat to the monarch population within recent years,” James L. Tracy, a postdoctoral research assistant in the Texas A&M University department of Entomology said. The department has conducted research with the Texas Department of Transportation in recent years and has identified roadkill as being a serious threat to monarchs, Tracy said.

Monarch butterflies like to travel together, and when in large groups, they often fly low, which puts the species at significant risk of being hit by cars. This is most common in West Texas and the Texas coast, officials said.

“That’s just one of those things that will be hard to avoid,” Tracy said.

The monarch butterfly population has been at a significant decline of 7 percent a year, Tracy said. But there are ways people can help the species survive.

“Anything people can do in their own home gardens would be beneficial to the species,” Tracy said. “The coast has an abundance of seaside goldenrod and groundsel bush, these are beneficial to the monarchs.”

Galveston certified Master Gardeners are encouraging people to prune tropical milkweed when they can.

“People need to educate themselves on what these beneficial plants that provide habitat for monarchs look like,” Franke said. “If you happen to have tropical milkweed in your garden, cut it back this November.”


Washington
AP
China cuts off vital US contacts over Pelosi Taiwan visit

WASHINGTON

China cut off contacts with the United States on vital issues Friday — including military matters and crucial climate cooperation — as concerns rose that the Communist government’s hostile reaction to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit could signal a lasting, more aggressive approach toward its U.S. rival and the self-ruled island.

China’s move to freeze key lines of communication compounded the worsening of relations from Pelosi’s visit and from the Chinese response with military exercises off Taiwan, including firing missiles that splashed down in surrounding waters.

After the White House summoned China’s ambassador, Qin Gang, late Thursday to protest the military exercises, White House spokesman John Kirby on Friday condemned the decision to end important dialogue with the United States as “irresponsible.”

The White House spokesman blasted China’s “provocative” actions since Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, which China claims as part of its territory. But Kirby noted that some channels of communication remain open between military officials in the two countries. He repeated daily assurances that the United States had not changed its policy toward the Communist mainland and the self-ruled island.

“Bottom line is we’re going to continue our efforts to keep opening lines of communication that are protecting our interests and our values,” Kirby said. He declined to speak about any damage to long-term relations between China and the United States, calling that a discussion for later.

Taiwan has put its military on alert and staged civil defense drills, but the overall mood remained calm on Friday. Flights have been canceled or diverted and fishermen have remained in port to avoid the Chinese drills.

On the Chinese coast across from Taiwan, tourists gathered to try to catch a glimpse of military aircraft.

A minister at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Jing Quan, told reporters that Pelosi’s mission of support for the democratic government of Taiwan has had “a severe impact on the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, seriously infringed upon China’s sovereignty and (territorial) integrity and ... undermines peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits.”

Long term, a significantly more confrontational relationship between China and the United States threatens an equilibrium under which Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s governments have sparred on human rights, trade, competition and countless other issues but avoided direct conflict and maintained occasional top-level contacts toward other matters, including cutting climate-damaging emissions.

A joint U.S.-China deal to fight climate change struck by Xi and then-President Barack Obama in November of 2014 is credited as a turning point that led to the landmark 2015 Paris agreement in which nearly every nation in the world pledged to try to curb emissions of heat-trapping gases. Seven years later during climate talks in Glasgow, another U.S.-China deal helped smooth over bumps to another international climate deal.

China and the United States are the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 climate polluters, together producing nearly 40 percent of all fossil-fuel emissions.

Ominously, experts in China-U.S. relations warned that China’s diplomatic and military moves appeared to go beyond retaliatory measures for the visit and could open a new, more openly hostile era, and a more uncertain time for Taiwan’s democratic government.

China-U.S. relations are “in a downward spiral,” said Bonnie Glaser, head of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund.

“And I think that China is likely to change the status quo in the Taiwan Strait in ways that are going to be harmful to Taiwan and are going to be disadvantageous to the United States,” Glaser said.

In recent years, other rounds of tensions between China and its neighbors over the India border, regional islands and the South China Sea have ended with China asserting new territorial claims and enforcing them, noted John Culver, a former East Asia national intelligence officer, now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. The same could happen now over Taiwan, Culver said. “So I don’t know how this ends. We’ve seen how it begins.”

China’s measures this week are the latest steps intended to punish the U.S. for allowing the visit to the island it claims as its own territory, to be annexed by force if necessary. China on Thursday launched threatening military exercises just off Taiwan’s coasts, running through Sunday.

Some missiles were sent flying over Taiwan itself, Chinese officials told state media — a significant increase in China’s menacing of the island.

China routinely complains when Taiwan has direct contacts with foreign governments, but its response to the Pelosi visit — she was the highest-ranking American official in 25 years —has been unusually strong.

It appears to derail a rare encouraging note — high-level in-person meetings between top officials in recent months including the defense chiefs at an Asia security conference in Singapore and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a Group of 20 meeting in Indonesia.

Those talks were viewed as steps in a positive direction in an otherwise poisoned relationship. Now, talks have been suspended even on climate, where the two countries’ envoys had met multiple times.

China stopped short of interrupting economic and trade talks, where it is looking to Biden to lift tariffs imposed by President Donald Trump on imports from China.

On Friday, China’s Foreign Ministry said dialogue between U.S. and Chinese regional commanders and defense department heads would be canceled, along with talks on military maritime safety. Cooperation on returning illegal immigrants, criminal investigations, transnational crime, illegal drugs and climate change will be suspended, the ministry said.

China’s actions come ahead of a key congress of the ruling Communist Party later this year at which President Xi is expected to obtain a third five-year term as party leader. With the economy stumbling, the party has stoked nationalism and issued near-daily attacks on the government of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, which refuses to recognize Taiwan as part of China.

China said Friday that more than 100 warplanes and 10 warships have taken part in live-fire military drills surrounding Taiwan over the past two days. Also, mainly symbolic sanctions against Pelosi and her family were announced.

On the China coast, fighter jets could be heard flying overhead, and tourists taking photos chanted, “Let’s take Taiwan back,” looking out into the blue waters of the Taiwan Strait from Pingtan island, a popular scenic spot in China’s Fujian province.

Pelosi’s visit has stirred emotions among the Chinese public, and the government’s response “makes us feel our motherland is very powerful and gives us confidence that the return of Taiwan is the irresistible trend,” said Wang Lu, a tourist from neighboring Zhejiang province.

China is a “powerful country and it will not allow anyone to offend its own territory,” said Liu Bolin, a high school student visiting the island.

China’s insistence that Taiwan is its territory and its threat to use force to reclaim control have featured in Communist Party statements, the education system and the state-controlled media for more than seven decades since the sides were divided amid civil war in 1949.

Taiwan residents overwhelmingly favor maintaining the status quo of de facto independence and reject China’s demands that the island unify with the mainland under Communist control.

Beyond Taiwan, five of the missiles fired by China landed in Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone off Hateruma, an island far south of Japan’s main islands, Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi said. He said Japan protested the missiles to China as “serious threats to Japan’s national security and the safety of the Japanese people.”

In Tokyo, where Pelosi is winding up her Asia trip, she said China cannot stop U.S. officials from visiting Taiwan.

———

AP writer David Rising reported from Phnom Penh. AP writers Huizhong Wu in Taipei, Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo and Seth Borenstein and Eric Tucker in Washington contributed.


News
With end of federal program, many students in Galveston County must pay for meals

A U.S. Department of Agriculture free food program ended in late June, leaving some Galveston County families worried about paying for school meals for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s frustrating to go back,” Cherie Bowers, director of nutrition services at Santa Fe Independent School District, said. “School meals should be a part of the students’ everyday life.”

The free food program was part of the COVID-19 Child Nutrition Response Act and covered the costs of feeding students no matter their economic status.

With the program’s end, students attending some independent school districts in the county, such as Santa Fe, Clear Creek and Dickinson, will have to pay for meals for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The only students who will continue to receive free food are those who qualify for the district’s reduced and free food programs, officials said.

Dickinson district officials still will continue to serve free breakfast to all students, however.

Students in Galveston, Hitchcock and Texas City public schools will continue to receive free breakfast and lunch no matter their financial status, officials said.

Those school districts qualified to be a part of the agriculture department’s Community Eligibility Provision program, which provides free breakfast and lunch to all students.

The districts had participated in the program before the COVID-19 pandemic. Galveston ISD had been participating in the program since 2018.

The Community Eligibility Provision is an option for schools and school districts in low-income areas and allows the nation’s highest poverty schools and districts to serve breakfast and lunch at no cost to all enrolled students without collecting household applications, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“In order to qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision, a school, group of schools, or the entire district must have an Identified Student Percentage of 40 percent or more and must offer both breakfast and lunch daily,” according to the Texas Department of Agriculture.

Identified students are eligible for free school meals because they’re in foster care or Head Start, are homeless, are migrant, or are living in households that receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/Food Stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families cash assistance, or the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations benefits, according to schoolnutrition.org.

Hitchcock ISD also will continue to provide free breakfast and lunch to all students through two programs.

One is the federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides reimbursements for meals and snacks to eligible children and adults enrolled for care at participating child care centers, day care homes, and adult day care centers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As of now, Santa Fe, Clear Creek and Dickinson do not qualify for the Community Eligibility Provision.

There are still many ways children can get free meals, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, children automatically are eligible for free meals if anyone in their household receives the benefits from Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or Food Distribution Program benefits.


Sports
AP
Kremlin says Griner swap must be discussed without publicity

MOSCOW

The Kremlin said Friday that it’s open to talking about a possible prisoner exchange involving American basketball star Brittney Griner but strongly warned Washington against publicizing the issue.

Griner, a two-time U.S. Olympic champion and an eight-time all-star with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, has been detained in Russia since Feb. 17 after police at a Moscow airport said they found vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage.

A judge convicted the 31-year-old athlete Thursday of drug possession and smuggling, and sentenced her to nine years in prison. The politically charged case comes amid high tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s military action in Ukraine.

Asked at the White House Friday about the prospects of securing Griner’s release, President Joe Biden said: “I’m hopeful ... We’re working hard.”

In an extraordinary move, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke last week to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, urging him to accept a deal under which Griner and Paul Whelan, an American jailed in Russia on espionage charges, would go free.

Lavrov and Blinken were both in Cambodia on Friday for a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Blinken did not even glance at his Russian counterpart as they took their seats at an East Asia Summit.

Lavrov told reporters that Blinken didn’t try to contact him while they were attending the ASEAN meeting.

“We were separated by just one person at the discussion table, but I didn’t feel his desire to catch me. My buttons are all in place,” he said when asked about Washington’s statement that Blinken would try to buttonhole Lavrov for a quick interaction in Phnom Penh.

Lavrov said Moscow was “ready to discuss” a prisoner swap but that the topic should only be discussed via a dedicated Russia-U.S. channel that Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to establish when they met in Geneva in June 2021.

“If the Americans again try to engage in public diplomacy and make loud statements about their intention to take certain steps, it’s their business, I would even say their problem,” Lavrov said. “The Americans often have trouble observing agreements on calm and professional work.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov made the same point more harshly, saying “the United States already has made mistakes, trying to solve such problems via ‘microphone diplomacy.’ They are not solved that way.”

He, too, emphasized that any discussions on a possible trade should be held via the previously established confidential channels that Putin and Biden agree to during last year’s summit.

“Such mechanisms exist, but they will be thrown into doubt if the discussion continues in the public domain,” Peskov said. He said: “If we discuss any nuances related to the issue of exchange via media, no exchange will ever take place.”

People familiar with the U.S. proposal have said it envisions trading Griner and Whelan for a notorious Russian arms trader, Viktor Bout. He is serving a 25-year sentence in the United States after being convicted of conspiracy to kill U.S. citizens and providing aid to a terrorist organization.

The call between Blinken and Lavrov marked the highest-level known contact between Washington and Moscow since Russia sent troops into Ukraine more than five months ago, underlining the public pressure that the White House has faced to get Griner released.

Griner was arrested as she was returning to play for a team in Russia, where she has competed since 2014. Blinken said Friday that her conviction and sentence “compounds the injustice that has been done to her.”

“It puts a spotlight on our very significant concern with Russia’s legal system and the Russian government’s use of wrongful detentions to advance its own agenda using individuals as political pawns,” he said.

On Thursday, Biden denounced the Russian judge’s verdict and sentence as “unacceptable” and said he would continue working to bring Griner and Whelan home.


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