Penny Britton and Tim Conti sold their Minnesota home to escape cold winters, and in October 2018 settled on Galveston Island. Their apartment at Club of the Isle on Cove View Boulevard overlooked a wide, green field teeming with birds and other wildlife.
One morning, Britton experienced what she called “the privilege” of seeing one of the island’s coyotes, cousin to the red wolf, roaming the grassland just outside her window.
Now, Britton’s view is of a field scraped down to bare dirt, with mountains of excavated soil and bulldozers lying in wait, the birds nearly all gone.
Anne Boyd, Britton and Conti’s neighbor at Club of the Isle, is a young, single mother who moved here with her little boy in February, thrilled at the placement of her apartment with its spacious corner balcony, just feet away from the fence that separates the apartments from the field next door.
In March, she began photographing the excavation of the field and one day put herself in front of a bulldozer, demanding to know what was going on. She was threatened with charges of criminal trespass, she said.
The apartment dwellers are watching what they call a travesty happen just outside their doors and windows. They heard that the land they used to think of as a nature area will soon be a 137-unit RV park.
On Friday, the bulldozers, trucks and other earth-moving equipment on the field that stretches from FM 3005 to Stewart Road, abutted to the west by the Sandhill Crane Park soccer fields and to the east by Club of the Isle, stood still and silent.
Boyd hoped that meant her protests had temporarily halted construction next door. But plans for the development are moving forward, as far as owner-developer Lamson Nguyen knows.
Nguyen said he’s building an eco-friendly RV park, that the displacement of the bird habitat next door was done with consideration for preservation of the wetlands embedded in the 27-acre field, and that he hopes to attract a new kind of RV traveler to Galveston.
SOMETHING’S HAPPENING HERE
Curiosity and alarm about the project on FM 3005 led to an email exchange among the neighbors, their City Councilwoman, Jackie Cole, and Tim Tietjens, director of development services for the city.
Britton wrote Cole, asking what was going on.
“I’m watching the destruction of a beautiful natural area for the sake of 137 RV parking spots,” she said in an email. “A month ago, this area was teeming with wildlife — egrets, ibis, herons, loons, ducks, spoonbills, sandhill cranes and a variety of raptors. We were even privileged to see a wolf there. Now there is nothing.”
Cole asked the city what they knew and Tietjens responded:
“Staff advises that the tract has been platted, and we have a preliminary site plan that shows a 137-space RV park.”
The owner had made a decision to build around jurisdictional wetlands on the property, designated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Tietjens said, calming any concerns anyone might have about whether proper permitting was in place. If plans don’t call for those wetlands to be filled or dredged, there’s no need for a permit.
This week, Tietjens confirmed that a development permit is still going through the city’s process for approval and that a city fill permit has been issued, accounting for all the earth moving at the site.
Jurisdictional determination of where wetlands exist in the 27-acre plot was made by the corps, Tietjens said. The city’s fill permit does not apply to jurisdictional wetlands, only to those outside the corps’ realm of responsibility.
“The corps has visited the site and have notified our department that the developer is avoiding wetlands with the fill,” he said.
NOT A PARKING LOT
Britton and Conti sat at their kitchen window on Friday, looking out at the area.
After they moved into Club of the Isle in October, they signed up for birdwatching class at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a program for seniors. Their instructor took the class to the field next to their apartment building, saying it was a great spot to see birds. Britton and Conti were thrilled. They could practically see their apartment window from where they stood, they said.
A pair of binoculars sits next to the screen of the opened window, now used to scope the construction next door.
Conti was concerned about a pump he could see, set up next to a small equipment trailer along the protective barrier next to the pond.
“It looks to me like they’re planning to pump water out of the pond and fill it in,” he said.
Nguyen said that wasn’t the case.
In fact, he said, what he plans for the former bird habitat is an RV park for people pursuing a sustainable lifestyle, an ecologically inclined RV park.
“We’re not building a parking lot,” he said.
WILL BIRDS RETURN?
Nguyen said he walked the site with people from the city and people from the corps, staking out a little less than 10 acres on the property that constitute jurisdictional wetlands, areas he has erected plastic protective barriers around, and that he plans to build walking trails around as part of the development.
“We’ll be using very little concrete,” he said. “We’ll use a lot of green pavers, and granite and limestone.”
His plan includes extensive landscaping, and that even with 137 spots, the RV park won’t be built to density capacity, he said.
Whether birds will be able to reclaim the area as their habitat remains to be seen.
Britton said she saw something Friday morning that shocked her. Having grown accustomed to waking to the beeping and diesel engine rattling of the earth-moving equipment next door, she was surprised by the quiet in the early morning air. A dense fog had landed.
“I looked out the window and saw all this white,” she said.
Ibis and egret had flocked in and landed between the fence and the plastic barrier area, crowded into a little 3-foot wide space, she said.
Their white wings, bodies and heads in motion made what looked like a hovering ghost in the fog.