A request for abandonment of several rights of way on Porretto Beach will go to Galveston City Council at the end of the month with a negative recommendation from the planning commission.
A contentious commission meeting Tuesday culminated in a split 4-3 vote to deny an application that requests 25 public easements be abandoned on the beach between Sixth and 10th streets.
Randy Williams, the Chapter 7 bankruptcy trustee for the estate of Sonya Porretto, is trying to sell the land in order to clear the estate, but a $6 million buyer has requested that the rights of way — technically city property — are included in the sale.
While the commission’s vote is only a recommendation and not an indication of how the city council will vote Jan. 25, Williams said he’s going to move ahead with an alternative option.
“I’m going to ask the court for authority to hold an auction,” Williams said after the denial. “I just don’t have any faith that city council will do anything different than what these people did.”
City staff and attorneys have said the issue should be confined to the rights of way alone, but at the core of the issue is the proposed development on the beach. The $6 million buyer, WRCB L.P., which has an agreement with Williams on buying the beach, is planning on building a multiuse boardwalk on the land.
Many in the public had opposed the project for various reasons, including the possibility of blocking public views of the beach.
Commission Chairman Bruce Reinhart, Vice Chairman John Dreiss and Commissioner Lisa Blair voted in favor of abandoning the easements. Commissioners Carol Hollaway, Cate Black, Eugene Cook and Jeffrey Hill opposed it, with several of them citing concerns about the proposed development.
Black said building a large development on the beach would be “irresponsible,” even though the city has stated it has had no intention to use the easements, which usually is enough to validate an abandonment.
“I recognize that the criteria for abandonment is valid, but I think this is a different situation because it’s a beach,” Black said. “If we pretend like it’s not, then I think that’s irresponsible, too.”
Michael Gaertner, the architect designing the proposed development, had previously asked the council to uphold a 1978 agreement to abandon 10 of the rights of way on the beach. The council could never confirm whether the abandonments officially took place because no documentation was found proving the transaction.
That vote was deferred to give the request before the commission Tuesday a complete hearing, starting from scratch, council members said. The request the planning commission reviewed Tuesday involved the 10 1978 rights of way as well as 15 additional ones. All of them were signed off by landowners who neighbor the beach.
The planning commission denial came despite city staff’s recommendation to approve the application.
“The staff is unaware of any municipal purpose or contemplated municipal use that would prevent the abandonment from moving forward,” Historic Preservation Officer Catherine Gorman said.
The three commissioners who voted in favor of the abandonment backed Gorman’s claim and said that abandonments are usually only denied if the city has a purpose for the land.
“This really has nothing to do with development,” Dreiss said. “We’re dealing with property that is not of use to the city, is not being used by the city and has value in selling it to the developer.”
If the rights of way are abandoned, they would be appraised and sold, Gorman said.
Reinhart said most people against the abandonments were thinking about the development.
“I feel a lot of this is about people concerned about view blocking,” Reinhart said. “That’s not what we’re here for.”
A handful of people spoke at the meeting against the abandonments, urging the city to keep them because they might be worth something in the future.
Former City Councilman Ralph McMorris said he’s concerned city is rushing to get rid of easements.
“This is the best investment the city can make,” McMorris said.
Beyond people associated with the developer, only Galveston restaurateur and hotelier Dennis Byrd spoke in favor of the abandonment. The development on the land could add significant economic value to the city, he said.
“I would like to see this development built,” Byrd said. “If you don’t proceed today, you would be imposing your will and your values and your beliefs on this project.”
Eventually, environmental and aesthetic concerns over the development won out. Hollaway said she couldn’t pave the way for any development that is vulnerable to storm surge.
“I have a real hard time promoting the idea of placing structures southward of the seawall on such a narrow strip of land,” Hollaway said. “I have real reservations of the impact of not only the integrity of not only the seawall, but of the beach itself.”