Council mulls land purchase

Special to the PRESS

After several executive closed sessions discussing land acquisition, the South Padre Island City Council and Mayor Barry Patel felt it was time to open up the conversation to the public at Wednesday night’s City Council meeting. The City is considering the purchase of a tract located west of Padre Boulevard between the South Padre Marina entrance and Sea Turtle Inc.

The mayor opened up the discussion, emphasizing that no decisions have been made about the land purchase nor did one have to be made that night. He estimated that 90 percent of the 30 acre property is wetlands that would require substantial mitigation before being prepared for construction and furthermore, would provide no guarantee of receiving permitting. Initial costs would be approximately $1.25 million but, after mitigation costs and getting the land to construction grade, would likely be in the range of $2.5 to $3 million for the City.

Before opening the topic for discussion, the mayor laid out three options with the first being the City purchasing the land for future use to extend the “ecotourism corridor,” the Convention and Visitors Bureau purchasing the land to potentially create a large event center, or simply to do nothing and let private business take over.

Councilmen Sam Listi spoke up first, referencing the City’s purchase of the Travelodge property, which sat unused for a few years but has come to fruition with the current development of a city park. He, along with Councilwomen Alita Bagley and Julee LaMure were in favor of the purchase to develop an ecotourism campus with the Birding and Nature Center, Sea Turtle Inc., and the proposed Native Plant Center nearby. They noted that this was a feasible option that would be beneficial for the area in the future, especially with the anticipated construction of the second causeway.

On the other hand, some council members were not prepared to jump on board with the purchase before further exploring the financial implications. Councilman Alex Avalos expressed the need to continue to focus on infrastructure issues like the repair needed on the boardwalk under the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway in addition to considering the almost $1.1 million in current debt service each year. Councilman Dennis Stahl was in agreement that, with the current information available, the purchase would be premature.

With the recent contract for services from grant writing consultant Peter Ravella and the formation of a grant writing team consisting of city staff,  the City has been exploring grant opportunities available, most recently applying for the Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) grant for the amount of $11.4 million requiring about a $1 million match from the City. Other grants being pursued, in addition to those that have already been awarded to the City for the new park, transit facilities, and coastal development, include a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) grant to pursue the development of boating access improvements and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Ecosystem Resiliency Grants program to complete the remaining eight walkovers needed for the City’s beach accesses.  In addition, billions of dollars in funds from the BP oil spill settlement in the form of the RESTORE Act and other channels are slowly being funneled down through federal and state levels to be distributed amongst communities across the nation over the next 18 years, which could provide additional funding opportunities in the future.

In regards to the purchase of the land, the council agreed that although the future funding opportunities for could be used toward ecotourism related development of the land, the general consensus was that further information in reference to finances and a clearer vision for the purpose of the site was needed before making a final decision. Councilman Stahl recommended that the council hold a special session to gain a better understanding of the financial implications of the purchase as well as to get feedback from Ravella’s team and citizens of the Island.

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