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Across Galveston County, local governments heavily involved in regulating building and zoning generally defer wetlands protection to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and its permitting responsibilities under the Clean Water Act.
That’s problematic, said Jackie Cole, a Galveston city councilwoman and longtime environmentalist.
“Our leaving decisions about wetlands to the Corps of Engineers is a problem because different corps districts around the country view wetlands differently,” Cole said.
“Here, they are more loosely protected and the interests of commerce are often weighed more heavily than the value of the wetlands.”
The state of Texas, which supports numerous departments charged with studying, analyzing and tracking the health of coastal marshlands, prairie wetland complexes and the waters of Galveston Bay, also doesn’t regulate wetlands protection except through the corps and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“The state has always had the capability to identify wetlands resources, to enact a law to put restrictions on resources, and the state of Texas has not done that,” said Kenny Jaynes, chief of the corps’ compliance branch in the Galveston district.
The Texas Water Code includes salt marshes and prairie potholes, wetlands embedded in coastal prairie, in its definition of wetlands for purposes of water quality certification. At the same time, it states that “if the state definition conflicts with the federal definition in any manner, the federal definition prevails.”
The corps in Galveston has long excluded freshwater wetlands in prairie pothole complexes from its jurisdiction. Now, existing federal rules adopted under the Obama administration are being challenged in federal court and are on indefinite hold. Those rules would require the corps’ Galveston District to protect coastal prairie wetlands.
How, then, do citizens and businesses invested in the future of wetlands ensure protection of these often-overlooked parts of the local landscape that provide essential services like filtering impurities from water and providing flood protection?
Many past attempts have been made by coalitions of private citizens, in partnership with local governments, to enter ordinances protecting wetlands into local code books.
“I tried to get a wetlands ordinance for years and years and years,” Cole said.
But the voices of those who see local ordinances protecting wetlands as hindrances to their livelihood or impediments to economic development have prevailed whenever those protections came close to becoming a reality.
In Seabrook, a small Harris County community on Galveston Bay, residents in 1999 spearheaded an ordinance aimed at protecting area wetlands.
The Seabrook Wetland Conservation Plan was funded by a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act and was coordinated through the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission and the Galveston Bay Estuary Program. The Houston-Galveston Area Council prepared the plan, working with the city of Seabrook, representatives of other state and federal agencies, environmental organizations and concerned citizens.
The plan was one of the first in the state developed using a model conservation process outlined in a Texas General Land Office publication, and it was held up as a model for other bay-area cities to develop plans of their own.
The city’s wetlands protection ordinance hasn’t served its intended purposes, however, some involved in it said.
“Sadly, there is no mechanism for enforcement,” said David Popken, a member of the wetlands committee. “No penalties have ever been put in place.
“The plan looks good, but is essentially useless, as anyone can ignore the law with impunity, and we’ve had many violations over the years.”
The city disbanded a wetlands board because members “wanted to add some teeth to the ordinance,” Popken said.
It’s not that local governments don’t have tools to conserve wetlands. They have zoning laws and building codes. They regulate planning for subdivisions, can regulate water pollution and prohibit nuisances that spoil any area under their jurisdiction. They can reward residents through mutually beneficial partnerships to protect endangered lands.
But that requires public support and a government committed to environmental protection, conservationists said.
“Municipalities and counties can push back on development plans,” said Lisa Gonzalez of the Houston Advanced Research Center.
“I would love to see municipalities valuing wetlands for the flood control, pollution control and habitat functions they provide,” Gonzalez said. “Governments can say to developers, ‘Build that parking lot on the other side of that building,’ or ‘Change the drainage.’”
Some municipalities in the Houston-Galveston region consider wetlands when approving development plats, but most do not, according to the research center. No municipality in Galveston County has a committee, ad hoc or otherwise, dedicated to wetlands protection.
Galveston, like most other cities, leaves wetlands to the federal government.
“The city is not involved in wetlands,” said Catherine Gorman, assistant director of planning and development for the city of Galveston.
The city defers to the Army Corps, “the permitting agency,” for anything involving wetlands and requires that a copy of the corps permit be submitted with any required development applications, Gorman said.
“The city has one zoning category — the Height and Density Development Zone — which requires a 25-foot buffer between wetlands and construction,” Gorman said. “But that’s the only regulation we have regarding wetlands.”
If the corps permits building on wetlands, that buffer disappears.
And when the corps requires mitigation by a developer, displaced wetlands can be replaced someplace other than the island.
Residents have asked the city to get involved in wetlands protection at least twice in the past decade — when the Galveston Island Long-Term Recovery Plan was devised immediately after Hurricane Ike in 2008, and before Ike in 2007 when the city partnered with the Trust for Public Land and numerous others to create the West Galveston Island Greenprint for Growth.
The greenprint was designed to meet two objectives in the City of Galveston Comprehensive Plan — to develop the West End with a focus on the environment and aesthetics and “to preserve and protect Galveston Island’s sensitive natural resources by facilitating creation of a network of permanently protected open space.”
One objective was to preserve the island’s character, said Linda Shead, a conservation consultant who, at that time, worked for the Trust for Public Land.
“The concept of greenprinting is to develop a map and agreed upon goals that can then guide work done to accomplish it,” Shead said.
“The question was how do you quantify or map the island’s local character, how do you determine what that means,” Shead said.
A large group of city personnel and local residents met numerous times and finally agreed that what defined the island’s local character was driving on the West End and being able to see the land stretching out from the bay to the beach, and in the winter, seeing sandhill cranes grazing on that land.
“While there’s no structure for implementation, what I found is that having that agreement among a diverse range of people, people who might not normally sit around a table with each other, and having an understanding of what people agree on does end up guiding conservation efforts,” Shead said.
Greenprinting influenced nonprofit Artist Boat’s efforts to preserve swaths of West End land from beach to bay, Shead said.
The top five goals greenprinting established were to protect habitat, protect shoreline, provide drainage and flood management, preserve the island’s character and provide access for public recreation. Rolled into those goals was significant protection of island wetlands.
At that time, one parcel of important habitat was protected on the West End, in Galveston Island State Park, and much of the remaining valuable habitat was undeveloped and unprotected. The greenprint offered strategies for protecting as many of those remaining parcels as possible, while acknowledging the need far exceeded the city of Galveston’s resources.
“If Galveston is to maintain the community’s character by protecting its most cherished lands, assertive implementation of a conservation vision is essential,” the greenprint plan concluded. That meant uniting people across the island to share the plan’s vision.
West End property values would likely hold or increase as coastal hazard concerns were reduced, recreational opportunities expanded and natural amenities were preserved, the plan said.
Then came Hurricane Ike and a period of intense concern about how the island would rebuild and what its future would look like from a vulnerable new starting point.
Some of the values identified through greenprinting, especially preserving the island’s natural features, survived after Ike.
The Galveston Island Long-Term Recovery Plan, an initiative led by Betty Massey after the hurricane, was similar to the greenprint in its priorities “to recover Galveston to a less vulnerable, more resilient place — economically, socially, physically and environmentally,” according to its vision statement.
The plan, devised by more than 300 residents, called for scientifically based policies for environmentally sustainable development. It called for preservation and conservation of sustainable natural resources, including wetlands.
It was presented to city council as a menu of projects and was intended as a guide for funding and resource allocation decisions as Galveston recovered from Hurricane Ike.
A memo from Massey went out to committee members in August 2009 outlining all that had happened during the three months prior.
One bullet point announced the city had allocated federal Community Development Block Grant money to complete the Comprehensive Plan and overhaul land-use and zoning ordinances addressing many of the issues raised in environmental projects.
“With Artist Boat as the lead agency in a request for hazard mitigation funds, Galveston has the opportunity to protect 300 acres of precious open space on the West End,” the memo said.
Eventually, Artist Boat secured federal and private money to purchase and preserve 669 acres of West End marsh and coastal prairie without city assistance or funding.
The committee also proposed a nature preserve on 685 city-owned acres at the East End Lagoon. Planning for the project, led by the Galveston Park Board of Trustees, is still underway.
The long-term recovery committee’s environmental group in September 2009 proposed a wetlands ordinance with regulations stricter than those enforced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
The committee had identified preserving wetlands as a way to naturally buffer storm surge and reduce flooding. The ordinance required building setbacks near wetlands and developers to create 5 new acres of wetlands on the island for every acre destroyed by construction. That included wetlands filled in to create building sites and those dug up to make canals connecting with Galveston Bay.
Developers protested, saying the new regulations would halt West End growth and hamper improvements throughout the city. The council eventually sent the ordinance to the planning commission, but allowed developers to participate in reviews before the regulations were passed.
The 25-foot buffer zone apparently survived, as did the city’s default position of deferring to federal regulations where wetlands protection and mitigation were concerned.
No city of Galveston committees are working on wetlands protections, spokeswoman Marissa Barnett said.
“There has not been much discussion about wetlands recently,” Barnett said. “This is an area that largely is in the realm of nonprofits and federal agencies that have more resources in that area.”
Cole sees the problem as a conflict embedded in traditional Texas values.
“Often in the state of Texas, private property rights are very important to people, and where that comes into conflict with environmental protection is when it impinges on the common good of the people,” Cole said.
“Frequently, private property rights have trumped the common good and we’ve lost common space because of this. But as we lose more and more of it, we begin to realize how important those common things are that we share. Then we begin to swing back into preservation mode.”
Mardi Gras activities continued across Galveston Saturday with parades and performances. Morning fog lifted as the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius Kick-Off Parade caravanned down Seawall Boulevard on Saturday morning.
— Kelsey Walling
Erin Halvorson, sitting next to several coworkers, hawked bottles of water to passersby Saturday from the front of Buster’s Old Time Photos on The Strand.
On a typical Saturday, the photo business might book between 10 and 20 sets of photos, Halvorson said. But this isn’t a typical Saturday — it’s Mardi Gras.
“It’s hard,” Halvorson said. “We don’t lose money, because we sell water to make up some of it. But people already pay to come down here, why would they pay any extra?”
Throngs of residents and visitors along The Strand and Seawall Boulevard celebrated the second day of the annual pre-Lenten festival by dancing, catching beads and just generally having a good time.
“I just enjoy getting out, enjoying the weather and getting to watch the waves and the parades,” said Dirk Ryan, of High Island, while looking the epitome of relaxed, leaning against a traffic barrier, and taking sips from an adult beverage.
Ryan has been coming to Mardi Gras in Galveston for many years, he said.
Saturday dawned overcast and cloudy, and Ryan noted the crowds along the seawall seemed smaller than usual.
“Maybe the people in Houston were seeing the radar saying it would be soggy,” said Gator Miller, who was dressed as a pirate (not for Mardi Gras, but as part of his everyday attire, he said). “They’re wrong. But it means more beads for me.”
Any slow start quickly dissipated, however, as the Mystic Krewe of Aquarius Kick-Off Parade began its jaunt down Seawall Boulevard and crowds gathered along The Strand to catch beads thrown in the golf cart parade.
Every year tends to start out like this, said J.D. Smith, of Hitchcock. But the festivities quickly pick up and everyone has a good time.
“People are starting to show up earlier, if anything,” Smith said.
Saturday’s crowd seemed a mixture between Mardi Gras veterans and newcomers, all of whom seemed in good spirits, despite the overcast beginning. The festival, which runs from Feb. 22 to March 5, typically draws thousands of visitors to the island.
“This is great fun,” said Kathy Nutt, who ventured all the way to Galveston from Granbury, west of Fort Worth. “We’ve enjoyed eating at all the local restaurants and having fun at all the events.”
While all visitors seemed to have a good time Saturday, the 108th rendition of the celebration comes during an ongoing debate in which some business owners have vented frustration over the street closures associated with the festival.
Organizers gate off part of downtown and charge people to enter on Friday evening and during weekend festival hours.
“Mardi Gras is great for the people, but not so much for the business owners,” said Halvorson, who is a manager at the photo business.
Despite concerns about customer access to businesses, charging for entry offsets significant costs the city must incur for security and other services associated with the festival, city officials said.
Before 2011, when the festival was free entry, the city spent $500,000 on Mardi Gras-related costs, but it spent only $250,000 in 2018, city officials said.
Some business owners, such as Cathy Catching, the owner of Mysticatz, 2021 Strand St., acknowledged business might be slower, but said they were happy with the festival and wouldn’t change it.
“It’s worth it, because we enjoy the festival and see a lot of people we only see once per year,” Catching said.
Studies show sea turtle populations are rising, but Galveston experts say there’s still much work to do.
James Collins, 17, had just arrived with a friend at a Clear Creek High School basketball game when an administrator told them they smelled of marijuana and asked a security officer to perform a field sobriety test, Collins said.
Now, despite taking a drug test several days later that turned up negative, Collins wakes up each morning and goes to school at the district’s disciplinary alternative education program school, counting down the days until he can go back to his friends and high school, he said.
This isn’t Collins’ first run-in with school administrators at his League City high school, and family members are now starting to wonder whether this might be racially motivated, they said.
“This has stopped my education,” Collins said. “Any other student would have dropped out, probably. This feels like racial profiling, and I feel like I need to take a stand.”
Clear Creek Independent School District officials, meanwhile, declined to comment about the specifics of Collins’ case, citing federal law prohibiting them from doing so.
“All disciplinary action is taken in accordance with the student code of conduct, taking into account the evidence and circumstances of each case,” said Elaina Polsen, spokeswoman for the district.
When looked at through a broader lens, Collins’ issues aren’t unusual. Black students are three times more likely than white students to be expelled or suspended, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection.
About 3.5 million students out of 49 million total enrolled in public schools were suspended during the 2011-12 school year, according to the data.
Of about 120,800 students without disabilities given a single out-of-school suspension in 2013-14, the most recently available year, African-American students accounted for almost 30 percent of them, or 35,768, according to federal data.
“The facts are in black and white for all to see,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization. “Racism is alive and well in our American school system and school policing and zero-tolerance policies condoned by schools should be re-examined, re-evaluated and repealed.
“This data clearly shows that black students are less safe, more restrained and pushed out of school more than other students.”
A quick glance at data for Clear Creek High School’s suspension data shows a comparable number of African-American and white students were placed into the district’s disciplinary program, 28 and 24 students respectively, according to Texas Education Agency data for the 2017-18 school year.
But African-American students account for a much smaller percent of the school’s population, about 263 people out of a total student body of about 2,348, or 11.2 percent, according to state data.
Meanwhile, about 48.6 percent of the student population, or 1,140 students, is white, according to state data.
Those ethnic distribution percentages are fairly in line with the district as a whole. About 46.1 percent of the district’s 42,008 students identify as white and 8.3 percent as African-American, according to state data.
Across the district, about 92 African-American students were placed in the disciplinary school compared to 188 Hispanic students and 210 white students during the 2017-18 school year, according to the Texas Education Agency.
Although Collins’ had run-ins with administration at Clear Creek High School before, matters took a serious turn in September, his mother, NyKisha Owens, said.
Owens received a call about Collins from school officials who, she said, gave conflicting information before eventually telling her he was being suspended in reference to a sexual harassment investigation, for which he would ultimately miss seven football games and spend 13 days in disciplinary school.
But the district attorney’s office never brought any charges, Owens argued.
“Although we understand there were no charges brought forward, the CCHS administration feels that through our investigation to date, the above behavior occurred,” Principal Jamey Majewski wrote to Owens in an Oct. 22 email.
After months of appeals, however, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Karen Engle eventually overturned Collins’ suspension and promised the family that the administration would not retaliate against him, Owens said.
Then, on Jan. 18, Collins attended the basketball game with a friend, Owens said. Shortly after arriving, an administrator told the two they smelled of marijuana and had a Galveston County Sheriff’s Office deputy perform a field sobriety test, consisting of standing on one leg and watching a finger, among other things, Collins said.
The school’s administration then placed Collins back at the disciplinary school for 30 days, despite the fact that a Jan. 26 drug test came back negative on an initial screening, Owens said.
This time Engle found in the school’s favor in a Feb. 12 ruling.
But Collins and his family are continuing the fight, Owens said.
“I just want to get back to school, focus on my grades and football and graduate,” Collins said.
A multiyear effort to bring attention to Galveston’s expanding tree canopy has earned the city a national designation.
Earlier this month, the Arbor Day Foundation named Galveston a Tree City USA.
Launched in 1976, the program gives recognition to cities that create forestry programs, establish tree regulations and enact other standards meant to care for city trees.
In Galveston, it’s a crown on top of a decade-long effort to restore trees after floodwaters from the 2008 Hurricane Ike wiped out about 40,000, said Priscilla Files, executive director of the Galveston Tree Conservancy.
Community partners have been working on the Tree City USA designation since the 2008 storm, Files said.
“We were still in recovery,” Files said. “We were replanting. The Tree City USA designation is really the cherry on top.”
Since 2009, when tree recovery efforts began, the conservancy and the city’s Tree Committee have planted almost 19,000 trees, committee member Nancy Greenfield said.
Greenfield and Files have worked since the storm to restore island trees.
Originally, the conservancy set a goal of planting 25,000 trees in five years, but the organization’s achievement is still big, Greenfield said.
But getting the tree city recognition required some additional work, Greenfield said.
“You have to really show that you are supporting the trees,” she said.
About 3,400 communities have this title, according to the Arbor Day Foundation. Cities must prove they have a tree department or board, a tree care ordinance with specific guidelines, a forestry program with a budget of at least $2 per capita and an Arbor Day observance, according to the foundation.
This title means that Galveston takes its trees seriously, tree conservancy founding member Margaret Canavan said.
“Before Ike, people really took trees for granted,” Canavan said. “Because they’d been in the ground for so long and were so big, we thought they were going to endure forever.”
The destruction of so many trees after the storm has changed that, she said.
“After Ike, it was very depressing to drive down Broadway,” she said. “It was like a completely changed landscape.”
The conservancy and the city have replanted trees along Broadway, FM 3005 and 61st Street, among other areas, committee members said.
Since 2009, volunteers contributed an estimated $490,000 in time planting trees in Galveston, Files said.
Donations, city money and some grant money paid for the trees, Files said.
But the tree city designation could help Galveston with getting grants to plant and maintain trees, Greenfield said.
Trees are important for shade and aesthetics, but they also provide an important function to cities, District 6 Councilwoman Jackie Cole said.
Cole, a longtime environmental advocate on the island, also is president of the conservancy.
“They absorb rainwater so there’s less of it that goes into the streets that needs to be drained,” Cole said. “They can be part of a drainage plan. They clean the air. They increase property values.”
The city will receive its official tree city designation 1:15 p.m. Thursday, during the Galveston City Council’s regular meeting.