County commissioners court voted Tuesday to start final steps to take over Rollover Pass, a popular fishing spot on Bolivar Peninsula, despite protests from a crowd of community members and anglers, who contended the move was a land grab that would hurt businesses.
In a 4-1 vote, commissioners court voted to acquire about 16 acres around Rollover Pass, which is owned by the Gulf Coast Rod, Reel and Gun Club. The county will acquire the land via eminent domain, a process that allows the government to seize private property for public use. The club and the Gilchrist Community Association have fought the closure since state lawmakers in 2009 appropriated about $6 million to fill in the pass.
County Judge Mark Henry and County Commissioners Ryan Dennard, Stephen Holmes and Ken Clark voted to use eminent domain to take the property. They also voted to reach an agreement with the Texas General Land Office, which manages the state's public lands, requiring the agency to pay for the land and build a fishing pier and park. Commissioner Joe Giusti opposed both measures.
The land office has pushed for closing the pass, which was created through a public-private partnership and dredged by the state in 1954. The pass contributes to significant beach erosion, dumping more than 29,000 dump truckloads of sand into the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, an extensive shipping channel, state officials argue. The erosion requires government to spend millions to dredge the waterway, state officials said.
Additionally, the pass alters the salinity of Galveston Bay, killing off oyster beds and altering the estuarine system, state officials contend.
About 50 people attended the meeting to voice opposition to the plan. Some shouted insults, calling the commissioners thieves and communists. Some residents stood before the commissioners court and questioned the state's ecological study, citing other research showing the pass contributes less to erosion. Others argued another plan could achieve the same result without filling in the pass, such as a jetty system, or a gate to control saltwater levels in the bay.
Jerry Martin, a Baytown resident who regularly fishes at the pass, held a 1950s painting of a boy with a catch of seafood. He walked from behind the speaker podium and past members of the commissioners court, showing them the picture.
"To me, this is what the pass is all about," Martin said, standing at the front of the room. "If you shut down the pass, you're going to take away the gem that so many people rely on."
Galveston resident Kim Kitchen, who has helped fight closure of the pass, accused the commissioners court of stealing land and destroying fishing businesses that rely on pass to survive.
"It's not about the ecological problems," Kitchen said. "This is all about money."
Dennard, whose precinct includes Bolivar Peninsula, agreed during the meeting that closing the pass would hurt business and the Gilchrist community. However, the county is limited on actions it can take to implement another plan, because the state owns beaches and the water passing through the pass, Dennard said. If the county continues to delay the state's plan, it could risk souring relationships with state agency responsible for disseminating millions in grant funding to help the peninsula, Dennard said.
"The decision making from the beginning was to work with the tools I have available in my toolbox to maximize the benefits for the county," Dennard said.
He cited the negotiated agreement as an example. Under the agreement, the state will build a public park, including a pavilion with restroom and shower facilities, a bait shop, visitor center, bird observation tower and fish-cleaning station. The land office will pay for the land, fishing pier and park; the county would be responsible for operating and maintaining the facilities, according to the agreement.
Giusti, the lone commissioner to oppose the plan, said he initially intended to vote for closing the pass, but conflicting ecological studies changed his mind. The county could have gone back to state lawmakers to find a better option, Giusti said.
"That's the hardest vote I've had to take since I've been here, without a doubt," Giusti said. "When you know you're going in and doing something that's going to hurt business, that's part of it. It's very emotional for these folks."
Ted Vega, president of the Gilchrist Community Association, which oversees care of the pass, said the fight was not over. The club and association could push state lawmakers to pull the funding and use it for better purposes, Vega said. He also predicted tough negotiations with the county over a fair price for the land.
"This is just what I'd expect from a county that continues to abide by the wants and desires of the General Land Office," Vega said.