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

Michael A. Smith: 409-683-5206;


(12) comments

Susan Fennewald

Because this property is part of a city and there are neighbors and others affected by its building - there is always more to it than just "property rights". The owners of this property benefit from its location in Galveston (or they'd want to build elsewhere), and so they have to live with both the downside and the upside of locating within Galveston. It would be much easier for them to build on Bolivar or on the mainland. But they choose not to do that. In a sense, they are willing to give up some of their property rights for the benefits of being part of our community.

Curtiss Brown

Good insight.

niki wise

The city needs to buy the beach property from the trustee. It can then lease the property to the guy who wants to build on it, if the city wants. That property is an asset that should have never been in the hands of a public owner, as is the case with the others that are owned by an entity other than the city.

Susan Fennewald

Does anyone know - is it possible for the city to exclude new projects from the flood insurance and windstorm insurance pools that the rest of belong to?

This project would be in an extremely vulnerable position and is much more likely to be damaged by flood and wind than those of us behind the seawall. I don't want them in the insurance pool that determines the rates for the rest of us.

Elizabeth Beeton

There is also the question of whether the trustee will be given the rights-of-way outright or pay for them. If the Porrettos had acquired the streets and alleys in 1978, the trustee wouldn't need to pay for them. If they did not acquire them then, then the city has to get paid for selling them. It is hard to understand why city officials are working to make the case that the streets and alleys were abandoned in 1978 when that would mean the city would not receive any compensation for them.

There is also the question of the height variance that a neighboring property owner obtained in 2012 from 55 feet to 269 feet. The proposed purchaser of the Porretto Beach property has applied for abandonments for all of the surrounding property and apparently intends to develop the entire parcel, including the tract on which the height variance was granted. A variance of that magnitude should never have been granted, but a building of that size can't be built there without incorporating the neighboring streets and alleys into the footprint. That is another good reason for holding onto the streets and alleys.

Curtiss Brown

Are these rights-of-Way truly easements? Could it be that the city holds fee simple title to this property?

Donald Glywasky


Jarvis Buckley

Reading these two posting comments takes me back to the years they were on city council.
Galveston is a better place for their service.

Don Schlessinger

Indeed, both ladies cared for the residents of Galveston. Now we're in the days of city council not caring for anything but the tourist $$.

Jarvis Buckley

EB is still trying to keep government
Actions out in front of the residents of Galveston. I hope after Big Jims time she will give it another try.✌️

Jim Casey

Property rights aren't absolute. No one wants a junk yard or chemical plant on the beach. Whether a 20-story development or any permanent structure should be built there is a more complicated problem.

That said, I don't want anything built south of the seawall. But I don't have a veto.

Jack Reeves

I am all for new development but, in addition to what Ms. Beeton has previously stated, the Seawall is a historic structure and any "new" construction south of it's footprint should be evaluated for it's impact on that existing utility. There is no doubt that Galveston's overall appearance has improved in the past couple of years but, those improvements did not just happen over night. Rather, they are the result of the care and caution utilized by previous and current councilpersons when evaluating projects such as this.

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