By Gaige Davila
Plans to develop the flats at Andy Bowie Park were delayed after the Cameron County Commissioners Court tabled the discussion, after a contentious exchange between Rio Grande Valley residents and Judge Eddie Treviño.
Barefoot Park, LLC, is attempting to design and build a “family themed recreation and entertainment facility” at Andy Bowie Park flats, located next to the South Padre Island Convention Centre, according to an April 27 Cameron County Commissioners Court agenda.
According to a since-closed post on Freelancer.com by Barefoot Park LLC seeking a grant writer, the 33-acre facility would have “2000 feet of boardwalks, with shopping, restaurant’s, tourist event booking center, Floating Water Park, outside events venue for up to 30,000 people.”
Cameron County began soliciting bids for developing the flats in 2019, though the land was deeded to be publicly accessible only. Since then, local activists and environmentalist groups have been advocating against development at the flats, including the Sierra Club and the Save Our Flats collective.
Treviño moved the agenda item addressing the flats until after the meeting’s executive session, then reopened public comments for those waiting since the start of the meeting to speak. In the executive session agenda was an item on SpaceX, which residents addressed as well.
Molly Smith, a South Padre Island resident, was one of several residents who phoned in to speak during the public comment period.
“I think it’s really important public hearings be held so everyone can understand what the consequences could entail,” Smith said while calling from Andy Bowie Park flats. “There’s a reason why we chose (Andy Bowie Park flats) for this citizen science activity: people come from across the country and even the world to see all of the natural abundance and variety afforded by this ecosystem.”
Smith said the property was a tidal wetland and was required to be protected by development.
Smith continued, “Besides it being a migratory (bird) flyway, it’s home to native birds, sea turtles, crustaceans and fish, some of them endangered or threatened species. You all know the importance of The Flats and its current undeveloped form for the tourism and fishing industry here in Cameron County.”
Smith also noted the flats at Andy Bowie Park were essential for protecting existing structures on South Padre Island from flooding and beach erosion, and that any development would risk their ability to protect the Island permanently.
“Once it’s developed, it’s developed; there’s no going back,” Smith said.
Sofia Peña, an Alamo, Texas, resident and social worker, spoke on accessibility issues from the development at the flats and at Boca Chica Beach, specifically SpaceX’s facility just a few miles away. Pena also spoke on high water taxes in countries like India, Columbia and Mexico, where water is exported to drink companies and comparing the natural resource exploitation to what’s happening in Cameron County.
“Nobody should have to watch the natural resources of their home be exported while they suffer, nor should Brownsville residents be forced to watch the natural habitat of this area be destroyed,” Peña told the commissioners.
Speakers also spoke on gentrification, or longtime residents being priced out of their homes due to increased demand, but a lack of supply, for housing, and environmental impacts occurring from SpaceX development and the flats development.
Treviño then closed the public comment period, to the frustration of more speakers waiting to testify, all of whom said they had formally submitted requests for public comment to the county. Treviño said the county did not have emails from these speakers, saying they were lost.
“This is not up for discussion,” Trevino said frustratingly, responding to a speaker’s request for the county to host a public hearing for those who were not allowed to speak. “I’m not allowed to engage you during public comment, that’s why we do it this way, that way you’ll have your three minutes. I apologize, there was a snafu that we didn’t receive your email.”
Trevino then moved onto the next agenda item.
“It seems that we experienced a glitch with our internet, none of the emails were received,” Cameron County Clerk Sylvia Garza-Perez told the PRESS in response to what happened to the requests for public comment. “Our IT Department is working diligently to identify the error.”
The Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club has scheduled an information session on Saturday, May 1, on advocacy related to the Andy Bowie Park flats.