Many of the people debating whether the city of Galveston should affirm the abandonment of 10 mostly unusable rights of way south of the seawall are arguing points that are beside the point.
The real questions about Porretto Beach have nothing to do with what did or didn’t happen almost 40 years ago.
The point that’s not the point is whether an ordinance the city council approved in 1978 granting those rights of way to Henry Porretto was ever fully enacted or whether certain conditions were unmet, rendering the decision null and void.
The answer to that question is murky. The ordinance was approved, but no documents have been found proving the necessary plats were filed to make the transaction official. But more importantly, answering that question about 1978 would not answer any of the questions still relevant in the closing weeks of 2017.
Except as a matter of expediency for Randy Williams, the bankruptcy trustee attempting to sell the Porretto Beach property, and maybe for the city council, it doesn’t matter much what happened 39 or so years ago.
What matters today is whether Galveston would be better served by aiding or by opposing a privately funded development on a privately owned tract of beach property.
That proposition offers many relevant questions of its own and those should be debated.
What, for example, is the compelling public interest in opposing privately funded development on a privately owned tract of beach property?
Some people argue the development shouldn’t be allowed because it would block views of the Gulf of Mexico. Is that sufficient, or even legal, given that sight easements don’t exist in Texas law?
Other opponents argue as if this were a question of surrendering public land to a private developer, which isn’t the case. The Porretto Beach tracts are private property, the Texas courts have settled that question. At issue is whether the city should relinquish public easements it holds on private land.
The city needs a compelling reason to keep those easements, especially if Williams sues in the interest of the creditors with claims against the bankruptcy estate of Sonya Porretto. Williams has said he would sue, and, so far, we’ve heard nothing that sounds like a solid justification for keeping the rights of way.
Every objection so far cooks down to “we’d rather not see development on the beach,” or “we’d rather not see that particular development on that particular beach.”
Does the city want to defend those arguments in a court in a state in which private property rights are near sacred? Do the taxpayers want to fund the defense of those arguments?
Some opponents of the development architect Michael Gaertner is working on have suggested buying the land with public money. Is there a significant constituency for spending $6 million of public money on that stretch of beach?
The city council is scheduled Dec. 14 to consider whether to affirm that the 10 rights of way were indeed abandoned in the late 1970s, or not.
If the city council decides the city still holds the 10 rights of way, those interested in buying and developing the Porretto land plan to start over, asking the city to abandon those 10 and 25 other rights of way in the proposed project area.
So, no matter what the city council decides on the narrow issue, the broader questions will remain. We might as well get past the false debate about what happened in 1978 and get to the real debate about what should happen now.
• Michael A. Smith