There are plenty of slow-moving drivers on Seawall Boulevard. The beach and Gulf views, and constant threat of a pedestrian popping out from between parked cars, often prompt a more leisurely pace on one of Galveston’s most-traveled roads.
Since spring break however, local drivers have noticed a seemingly new addition — or, to some, a new obstacle — on Seawall Boulevard: golf carts of varying sizes cruising on the street alongside normal traffic.
The opening of a new golf cart rental business earlier this month has apparently spurred the boom of carts on Seawall Boulevard. But their presence has also turned attention to a 2017 speed limit change that apparently unintentionally allowed the carts to start driving on a major portion of the street.
Chad Jones, the owner of Galveston Golf Carts, opened two storefronts in Galveston this month, one on the Strand and the other in the 4100 block of Seawall Boulevard.
The rental business had been in the works for at least five months, said Jones, who previously operated a similar rental business in Kemah.
Jones said he was inspired to open up in Galveston after one of his Kemah renters brought a golf cart down to Galveston and got a flat tire. He rescued the client and saw the potential of the island.
“Business has been very good so far,” Jones said. “It could always be better, but with a growing business, a new business that nobody knows about, that a lot of people are very hesitant about, I would say we’ve done very good.”
He rented all 31 of his golf carts out last weekend, he said.
In scouting locations around the island, Jones found a spot in a strip center on Seawall Boulevard, and in researching city rules, found there was nothing stopping him from renting on the thoroughfare or allowing his soon-to-be customers to drive off the lot.
That’s because in 2017, the Galveston City Council voted to reduce the speed on a portion of Seawall Boulevard, between 40th Street and 61st Street to 35 miles per hour.
Under city rules, golf carts are allowed to operate on roads that have speed limits of 35 or slower. There are some exceptions; golf carts aren’t allowed on the Avenue O and Avenue P thru-ways on the island’s interior, but otherwise the speed limit dictates where golf carts can and cannot be.
Galveston City spokeswoman Marissa Barnett on Monday confirmed that the speed limit change did allow for golf carts to be on part of the street, and pointed out that the same speed limit — and permissive rules — had existed for years between 6th Street and 39th Street.
But it wasn’t until Jones’ business opened up that the golf carts’ presence drew attention and complaints from some Galveston drivers.
Galveston city council members who represent the portions of the Seawall in question said they have received a fair number of complaints about golf carts on the road.
“I’ve been up there quite a bit and it seems to me that there’s more golf carts going up and down the seawall than I’ve seen in the past,” said District 2 councilman Craig Brown. Brown said he was concerned about how safe a golf cart can be when operating in traffic, and asked City Manager Brian Maxwell if there are any measures the city could take to put limits on them.
Brown did not say if he planned to propose an ordinance or rule change that would ban them from the street. Doing that might not be possible under state law, he said.
The 2017 speed limit change only changed the speed on Seawall. Golf carts remain prohibited on other major streets in Galveston including Broadway, Harborside Drive and 61st Street.
They’re also banned from being on the parts of the Seawall that are part of the state highway system: east of 6th Street and west of 61st Street.
District 3 Councilman David Collins said he believed allowing golf carts on the road was not an “intended consequence” of the speed limit change, and that he was concerned that people riding golf carts are at risk while on the street.
“In any auto-mobile-golf-cart collision, the golf cart is going to lose,” he said.
Some council members were hesitant to offer immediate opposition to the golf carts.
“It’s definitely something we need to pay attention to and watch closely,” said District 5’s John Paul Listowski. “The speed limit is the speed limit and if they’re safe on other streets, and they’re allowed there, I don’t really know what makes seawall different.”
For his part, Jones said he insists that all of his customers agree to follow Galveston’s rules when it comes to driving golf carts — including that they be licensed drivers and that they follow all of the city’s traffic rules.
He said he’s confident that his renters follow all of the city’s rules and can operate safely on the busy street.
In his first week of operation, he said the business was getting 20 to 30 calls a day complaining about the new rentals. After the city put out an advisory two weeks ago about its rules regarding golf carts, those calls tailed off, he said.
“I think that the citizens are now getting educated,” he said. “I think it’s becoming more accepted.”
It’s so accepted, he said, that he’s noticed Galveston residents starting to bring their own golf carts out of the garage and onto city streets.
A proposed agreement might present a solution to West End residents concerned about inundation of seaweed on island beaches after the Galveston Park Board of Trustees stopped allowing private companies to operate under its cleaning permit.
Under the proposal, the park board will rent equipment and staff to West End property owner associations when seaweed reaches a certain threshold, Park Board of Trustees Executive Director Kelly de Schaun said.
“We’re really pleased with this,” de Schaun said.
The park board maintains island beaches, but isn’t required by the state to clean sargassum or other types of seaweed from the beaches, since it provides ecological benefits, park board officials said.
The agreement came about this month because some West End residents raised concern their beaches wouldn’t be cleaned of heavy seaweed this year, a practice that homeowners associations previously paid third party companies to do.
But last summer, the park board decided to stop allowing firms to operate under a permit issued through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when island environmental groups raised concern about a company’s beach cleaning method.
“Their vendor was not behaving well,” de Schaun said.
According to the draft agreement, the park board will clean beaches if seaweed builds up to 2 1/2 feet high and 10 feet wide over at least 50 percent of a property, de Schaun said.
The park board will leave some seaweed on the beaches, since it presents an ecological benefit, she said.
Some West Enders want to see their beaches even cleaner, said Bob Dolgin, president of the Sandhill Shores Property Owners Association.
“We want clean beaches and we should be entitled to clean beaches,” Dolgin said. “Other parts of the country have clean beaches.”
Dolgin and the residents he represents want to hire their own third-party contractor to clean seaweed off beaches, he said.
The Indian Beach Property Owners Association probably won’t participate in the contract, President Mike Christiansen said.
“To us, it’s cost prohibitive,” Christiansen said. “The rules change every year on the permitting on what you can rake. Shooting a moving target isn’t successful.”
That’s not a park board problem, but a regulation at the state level, he said.
The up-front costs for cleaning the entire West End would be $160,000, according to park board documents. This would be split between different associations and either refunded or rolled over to the next year if not used, according to documents.
West Galveston Island Property Owners Association President Jerry Mohn couldn’t be reached Monday.
Only one company, Beachside Environmental LLC, conducted beach cleaning using the park board’s permit under its old policy.
That business closed after the policy changes, said owner Hernan Botero.
“It has never been proven that I did anything wrong,” Botero said.
Other communities clean beaches daily and look much cleaner than Galveston beaches, he said.
“We were cleaning the beaches once a week,” Botero said.
The company last year was criticized by the Turtle Island Restoration Network, an environmental group which advocates for turtle populations, for removing too much beneficial sargassum from beaches.
In July, the company sued the restoration network and local program director Joanie Steinhaus, claiming she defamed them with false statements. That lawsuit is still active and pending in a Galveston district court.
The park board’s new rental policy may only be a temporary measure, de Schaun said.
The corps is working on developing a regional beach-cleaning permit that either homeowners associations, companies or anyone else could operate under for a small fee, de Schaun said.
Previously, the park board allowed firms to work under its permit because obtaining the authorization is costly and takes years, de Schaun said.
This new corps permit will likely take several years to develop, she said.
So far this year, there haven’t been any major landings of seaweed on the island. The island’s beaches haven’t seen large amounts of sargassum, which is actually an algae, since 2014. That year, the seaweed piled up to thigh-high heights across most island beaches.
Park board trustees are scheduled to vote on the proposed agreement during a regular meeting Tuesday.
Friendswood, Clear Springs have high hopes as soccer playoffs begin.
Negotiations are underway between the Fort Bend Independent School District and Fort Bend County to determine who will ultimately own land near Sugar Land where last year the remains of 95 former state of Texas convict laborers were unearthed.
The bodies, 94 male and one female, were in unmarked graves, ranged in age from 14 to 70 and were buried there between 1878 and 1910 when large sugar plantations operated under such harsh conditions that the place came to be known as the Hellhole of the Brazos.
Galveston County resident Samuel L. Collins III and Reginald Moore, of Houston, meanwhile, have been updating groups on the Sugar Land 95, the history of convict leasing in Texas and progress toward permanently creating a suitable memorial at the site where the bodies were found.
On April 12, Collins and Moore will lead a one-day seminar at Rice University, and in June, they will speak at The Bryan Museum in Galveston.
On March 11, Collins and Moore led a seminar at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University, “Unearthing the Truth of Slavery by Another Name.”
“Our hope is that a story like this one becomes a chapter or an entire volume in American history, not merely a footnote,” Collins said.
Moore, who was a prison guard for three years in the 1980s at the Jester State Prison Farm near where the bodies were unearthed, became interested in Texas’ and the Gulf Coast region’s history of leasing convicts for unpaid agricultural labor when he first saw modern prisoners, most of them black men, working in the fields with white guards monitoring them, riding up and down rows on horseback.
To Moore, it looked like a plantation from the not-so-distant past, Collins said.
In the late 1800s, businessmen Edward H. Cunningham and Littleberry Ellis signed a contract to lease the entire population of Texas prisons to work in their fields. Arrests, especially of black men, increased exponentially with harsh sentences assigned to even minor offenses that normally would have resulted in fines or probation.
The land those convicts cultivated had previously been owned by the Williams brothers, including Samuel May Williams, whose Galveston home is a familiar landmark. The land was eventually sold to Isaac Kempner of Galveston and William T. Eldridge of Eagle Lake and formally incorporated as the Imperial Sugar Company.
Kempner opposed the convict leasing program and began changing it to a free labor system just before convict leasing was scrutinized by the press and ultimately shut down, making prisoners the sole property of the state of Texas. Convict labor at prison farms in the area, like the Jester Unit, continued to operate.
In January, Harvard School of Design student Hanna Kim reached out to Moore, to help him pursue grant money to further his work. Collins, who had begun working with Moore on the Sugar Land 95 project, served as a communication liaison between the two, since Moore doesn’t use the internet. Kim set up a Skype call from her parents’ home in Cambodia, and the three talked about the work Collins and Moore were doing in Texas, ultimately deciding they should bring the story of the Sugar Land 95 to Harvard, Collins said.
Kim visited the Hutchins Center, whose director is famed African-American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., and enlisted support for bringing Moore and Collins to campus.
“I’m very honored to have been the bridge that brought them to campus,” Kim said. “A lot of people came out and it was a beautiful and super engaging event.”
Kim read about the Sugar Land 95 shortly after the bodies were discovered and was so shocked by it that it came to mind when she had to write a paper for a graduate school course, Culture, Conservation and Design, in which students examined a place and tied what happened in the past to the current identity of the place, looking at who was involved in shaping the narrative of the place, and whose voices were silenced.
Sugar Land wasn’t incorporated until 1959 but arose on land where thousands of slaves, and later convict laborers, had worked the fields making fortunes for wealthy white landowners whose names are enshrined in the area’s history, foremost among them Stephen F. Austin.
Kim, who immigrated to the United States from Cambodia at age 14, realized this was a suppressed and largely untold story in American history.
“I’ve talked to people, my friends who are Americans, and they’ve said, look, I’ve never heard of this,” Kim said. “Hearing about convict leasing still shocks people, even though it’s so easy to make connections between then and now. I think that’s why the Hutchins Center saw the critical need for this event.”
For Collins, the experience of bringing the Sugar Land 95 story to Harvard was transcendent, though an event the day after the seminar cast a dark shadow and was a brutal reminder of how some things have not changed in America.
“Mr. Moore was sitting on a couch in a lounge area of our hotel, reading the New York Times that had been dropped outside his hotel room door, when a hotel employee confronted him, assuming he was a homeless person, not a guest,” Collins said.
The hotel has since apologized for the employee’s action, but Collins said it still stings.
“It’s 2019 and this is still a reality,” he said. “This is about valuing all people for who they are, and recognizing the Sugar Land 95 for their part in our shared history.”