February 5, 2006
Controversy Over South Padre Island Beach Access
SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Texas -- A 9 1/2-mile-wide bay separates rural Willacy County from what surely must be paradise: Padre Island's isolated beaches, a nature retreat for bird watchers and what's considered some of the best sport-fishing in the country.
For about 40 years, the county has sought direct access to the riches of the narrow barrier island, with no success. The land to the north of a manmade ship channel dividing the island is the federally protected Padre Island National Seashore, a wilderness area.
That leaves South Padre Island. But the most convenient access point for county residents - on the northern end of South Padre - is owned by the Nature Conservancy and is a haven for rare and endangered species such as Kemp's Ridley sea turtles, the most endangered sea turtle in the world; piping plovers and brown pelicans. The islands are also an important staging area for rare peregrine falcons in migration.
So what's a county to do when an environmental group says the land's not for sale?
Willacy County is exploring its use of eminent domain to seize the land, an option that has stirred a cauldron of controversy.
Willacy is a financially foundering county on the northeast end of the Rio Grande Valley, about 40 miles from the Texas-Mexico border. It has fewer than 18,000 people, and no real industry since fruit-packing sheds and clothing factories closed decades ago.
Its bright spot is Port Mansfield, a sleepy town with a picturesque cluster of marinas and stilted homes with boat slips. Fewer than 500 people call it home. The town has no access to the island's beaches or the fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, and the waters of Laguna Madre Bay offer little for beachgoers and swimmers.
To reach the island, visitors must drive 25 miles up the coast from South Padre Island, a bumpy trip that requires a four-wheel drive vehicle and knowledge of tides that can trap a motorist on the return trip.
"If you don't have access to the island, then what's the purpose for coming here?" said Willacy County Attorney Juan Angel Guerra.
A few years ago the state General Land Office awarded the Willacy County Navigation District a $700,000 grant to fund a project to ferry passengers to the island. The district used $90,000 of that money in 2004 to buy "Lark," a 40-year-old amphibious vehicle that could ferry as many as 30 passengers from Port Mansfield to the island.
Now, it wants to buy a place to load and unload the craft so residents and tourists can enjoy the beach.
Enter the county commissioners. They voted in November to use eminent domain to seize the land, angering conservancy members who fear an influx of beachgoers will threaten wildlife on the 1,500-acre section of island.
Eminent domain gives governments power to take private land for public use - usually for projects such as highways or mass transit systems. Texas was one of at least 31 states to review eminent domain laws following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that backed governments' power to take private land for economic development as a way to increase tax revenue.
Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill into law last fall that limited eminent domain use in Texas, saying government should not encroach upon private property rights unless there is an eminent public need. "Eminent domain for private use is a great threat," he said.
Guerra said the county can legally take the land, since it will allow the public better access to the island.
The Conservancy vows to fight the land grab in court, but a law professor in Texas said they may not have much to go on if the county's aim is truly public use.
"As far as I can tell, Willacy County can clearly exercise their power of eminent domain. ... I don't see the county not prevailing in the long run," said Victoria Mather, professor of law at St. Mary's University School of Law in San Antonio.
Still, she said, it could be a long fight.
"Anytime people decide to dig in their heels, it can drag things out," she said. "But for the Nature Conservancy, I just don't think there's anything they can do, ultimately."
Conservancy representatives said they learned of the county's eminent domain decision through local news reports.
"No one at Willacy County has made any attempt whatsoever to contact the Nature Conservancy about this matter," said Carter Smith, the Conservancy's state director. "Candidly, we find that very disquieting."
Smith said the Conservancy talked about selling the land to the county several years ago but decided against it because the county hadn't thought through how it would deal with sanitation issues, law enforcement and other ways to mitigate environmental impacts and protect endangered species.
He said beachgoers could unknowingly tramp on clutches of endangered sea turtle eggs or disturb dunes and mud flats that are crucial habitat for reddish egrets, roseate spoonbills and redhead ducks. He said the county was vague about how and where it intended to install toilets or tote away garbage.
Mike Wilson, director of the navigation district, said all those concerns will be considered as the project moves forward, but the county doesn't yet have a firm plan or budget.
He said he doubted the environment would be harmed by providing better access to the island.
"I don't know why there would be more of an impact for our people coming over on a boat," he said. "How would there be any more impact than people driving up the beach?"
On the Net:
National Park Service, Padre Island: http://www.nps.gov/pais/
The Nature Conservancy: http://nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/texas/preserves_art6430.html