Corpus Christi Coastal Controversy

It might not look like much now. It’s covered with seaweed, empty Lone Star beer cans, and various pieces of jetsam tossed from offshore shrimping vessels. But one particular stretch of beach on Padre Island in Corpus Christi is a favorite spot of surfer-physician-activist Mike McCutchon, who says he’s fighting to prevent city officials from effectively making it into a private beach for a proposed multimillion dollar development.

McCutchon, who is one of the leaders of the Corpus Christi chapter of Surfrider Foundation, is joined by thousands of other people who enjoy the area for its big surf, excellent fishing, and convenient beachcombing. Together they are taking on the city council, the local chamber of commerce, and some tight-lipped developers who want to create a 7,200-foot pedestrian-only stretch of beach that is slated to sit in front of a proposed “world-class resort.” By prohibiting vehicles and making the beach pedestrian-only, the city government will effectively cut off access to a popular fishing and surfing spot known as Packery Channel.

“We need to make sure we have a decent place to go to the beach in the face of development that is coming,” McCutchon says.

People playing volleyball on a beach

The surfer-turned-activist says he knows the area is bound to grow, with or without a new resort. But elected officials should keep in mind the needs of the people who use the beach now, not necessarily the ones that would be attracted to a resort in the future, he says. Moreover, there’s a bigger issue involved, one that has a lot of people worried.

“It’s the beginning of the end of good public beach access,” says McCutchon. “They are setting us up to have the rest of the beach blocked off as a tourist destination beach, rather than having good public access for the citizens. Basically, they are putting the tourists first.”

The plan approved by the Corpus Christi City Council last month would prohibit vehicles on a chunk of coastline that begins at Packery Channel and extends 4,200 feet to the south. If the proposed “world-class” development becomes a reality, another 3,000 feet will then be designated as pedestrian-only. With or without the resort, a section of the beach will be closed unless determined beachgoers can overturn the council-approved ordinance.

For many in this state the right to drive on the beach is up there with God, Mom, and Apple Pie, and for some of the locals, that is exactly what this fight is all about: preserving that perceived right to drive their vehicles to the edge of the water for easy access to the Gulf of Mexico. But for a couple of former state senators, the issue goes beyond the perceived right to spin wheels in the sand. Former state Sen. Babe Schwartz (D-Galveston) and former state Sen. Carlos Truan (D-Corpus Christi) say that closing off this section of beach to cars is an affront to the Texas Open Beaches Act, which is supposed to protect citizens’ ability to access public land in a state where 94 percent of la terra firma is privately owned.

People playing volleyball on a beach

“Public beaches are the crown jewel of our coastline,” Schwartz says. “The last pristine accessible beach ought not be bargained away.”

Closing beaches to vehicular traffic is not illegal in Texas. Officials can prohibit vehicular traffic on beaches as long as the Texas General Land Office approves and the city provides ample parking and better or equal access to the sand and surf. Schwartz says the GLO has traditionally done a good job with Texas beaches. But he says he wants the land office to prevent city officials from creating a de facto private beach for a high-dollar development.

Like Schwartz, the garrulous Truan spoke critically of the city council.

“We need to make certain that we do everything possible to prevent losing our public beaches to special interest. And the special interest here is the developers,” Truan says. “It would have been a very bad idea for the city council to give up the public beaches just to accommodate a developer. It’s one developer today, but what about developers tomorrow?”

Today’s developer, Paul Schexnailder, has been talking resort for years. He didn’t return calls to the Observer, but his current plan has been widely discussed in the coastal town. Though the sometimes-elusive, Austin-based Schexnailder won’t disclose publicly the name of his financial backer, it’s believed to be a Canadian resort-building company called Intrawest. The multimillion dollar project, which includes a complex of hotel rooms and condos, is slated to be developed in three phases, according to a presentation by officials at a March 21 city council meeting.

Corpus Christi City Councilman Mark Scott says he envisions Schexnailder building a “resort experience,” more like that of Florida than South Padre or Galveston. He says the proposal is “designed to be something different than you have along the Texas coast.”

The resort also is expected to pad the public coffers with $50 million a year, officials say. That kind of money makes politicians giddy, especially in revenue-starved communities like Corpus Christi. City leaders also talk excitedly about the jobs that come with such a major project, even if they mainly will be low-paying service jobs. At-large Corpus Christi Councilman Brent Chesney responds to critics by saying that any kind of job would be a positive addition to the local economy. “We are what we are. We’re a tourist destination,” Chesney says. “This is the kind of thing that we wanted for years.”

Corpus Christi’s business community and many people in local government have been willing to do just about anything for the prospect of a large-scale development in the Sparkling City by the Sea, as the city calls itself. But the vision of city leaders and developers very well might be spoiled if McCutchon and the rest of the group of waterlogged residents—along with Schwartz and Truan—can gather about 8,000 signatures to put the council’s pedestrian-only ordinance up for a referendum. Depending on how long it takes to gather signatures, Corpus Christi voters could decide on the beach’s future next November or in April 2007.

If the grassroots effort prevails, then the developers are expected to pull out of the project.

The petition to reverse the council’s decision to prohibit cars on the beach is just one part of the grassroots effort. McCutchon and his group are also trying to overturn a related charter amendment, which states that all future attempts to close portions of the beach to cars must first be approved by the voters—language designed to appease the beachgoers. But that language left “gaping” loopholes that make McCutchon and his friends uneasy. So they’re also trying to shoot down the charter amendment.

Schwartz, a former state senator from Galveston, says the city politicians would be wise to listen to their motivated and organized constituents, especially considering that most council members were elected with fewer votes than the petitioners are expected to gather.

“I’m surprised the city council can take this position knowing the adversary can round up 9,000 people to sign a petition,” Schwartz said. “My experience in this business is that the people will prevail.”

McCutchon says the trick will be to keep his allies engaged and willing to vote to rescind the city council’s action and change the charter. But if the people fighting the establishment don’t rally behind their cause, then water-lovers like McCutchon might want to look for a new surf spot along some of the remaining open—and drivable—portion of the Texas beach.

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Published at 12:00 am CST