Gulf of Mexico
The Jaladi, classified as a Very Large Crude Carrier (VLCC), steams toward the Gulf of Mexico in this photo shot from Horace Caldwell Pier on Saturday, Aug. 31. The Port of Corpus Christi is seeking to dredge the ship channel in Port Aransas to about 80 feet deep to make it easier for VLCCs to pass through. Staff photo by Dan Parker

Texas: In Emergency Action, Port Aransas Imposes Moratorium on Harbor Island Industrial Permits in Oil Terminal Battle

The Port Aransas City Council is pumping the brakes on efforts to further industrialize Harbor Island. An emergency ordinance was approved by the council on Thursday, Aug. 29, placing a two-month moratorium on issuing property development permits or approvals for development of any Harbor Island properties for heavy industrial uses.

The measure said the city wants to use the two months to study whether more zoning and other development controls should be instituted on Harbor Island.

The action was effective immediately, said City Manager Dave Parsons.

The vote was 6-0, with council member Beverly Bolner absent because she was out of town, attending the birth of a grandchild.

The moratorium comes at a time when the Port of Corpus Christi is working on plans to put a crude oil terminal on Harbor Island.

Trying to clear the way for possible construction of a desalination plant on Harbor Island, the port has applied to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for a permit to discharge brine wastewater from the island into the adjacent ship channel.

The Port of Corpus Christi isn’t the only entity seeking to further industrialize Harbor Island. Axis Midstream Holdings has proposed to build a crude oil terminal there, too, though Parsons said only about half of the property where that could happen lies inside the Port Aransas city limits.

The council approved the emergency moratorium immediately after emerging from an approximately one-hour session that was closed to the public for consultation with City Attorney Michael Morris. Texas law allows councils to hold executive sessions to discuss legal matters .

The emergency ordinance approved by the council points out that Hurricane Harvey did severe damage to the Port Aransas Volunteer Fire Department.

The city is rebuilding the fire department but cannot provide fire protection and emergency response to heavy industry on Harbor Island, especially oil and gas-related operations, the ordinance said.

“As a result, a public emergency exists which adversely affects the life, health, property and public peace of those properties located on Harbor Island,” the ordinance said. “ To ensure that these life safety concerns are protected, a temporary moratorium on further heavy industrial development on Harbor Island is warranted until adequate fire protection services and emergency response are available.”

The ordinance also says Port Aransas is a “non-industrial town. It has the ambiance of a small fishing village but has experienced rapid growth in recent years and is in danger of losing the charm that makes it attractive and unique.

“In recognition of this situation, the city council is considering rezoning some of Harbor Island and/or the imposition of additional controls upon new development on Harbor Island,” the ordinance said.

“In order to prevent the development of Harbor Island in a way which would adversely affect, damage or destroy the aesthetics or environment of the city, and to recognize the historical uses of Harbor Island, the council considers it necessary to pass this temporary moratorium on an emergency basis to allow the city to study and, if determined to be appropriate, institute additional zoning and other development controls on Harbor Island,” the ordinance said.

Unless the moratorium is repealed by the council, no development permits or approvals shall be issued for development of Harbor Island property for 60 days, starting on Aug. 29.

Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan read a statement during the council meeting. He started with remarks about Port of Corpus Christi CEO Sean Strawbridge and an Aug. 20 port commissioners’ meeting agenda item.

Bujan said the agenda item “clearly and without a doubt shows the intent of Mr. Strawbridge, representing the (port), to challenge the political subdivision status of the City of Port Aransas and its rights granted to it under state law, including the rights of governance over the lands within its city limits.”

Bujan quoted the agenda item: “To approve the engagement of the law office of Douglas Allison and Baker Wotring LLP to represent (the port) in connection with municipal permitting requirements imposed on (port) projects.”

Bujan referred to the port as “the navigation district.”

“It is important to recognize that the City of Port Aransas has negotiated with the navigation district staff on numerous occasions, not including Mr. Strawbridge, and as far as we were concerned that we were all in agreement that the city’s building permit process was well stated and that our staff would provide for a fair and equitable evaluation of their permits,” Bujan said.

“Mr. Strawbridge seems to think otherwise, by his actions of wanting to create for the navigation district a building process with no oversight whatsoever from the city of Port Aransas, nor from our neighboring municipalities,” Bujan said.

“Mr. Strawbridge seems to have an attitude of it’s-my-way-or-the-highway and, as a result, he has placed the navigation district and many of the folks who work for it in an adversarial (relationship) with thousands of folks who live in places like Port Aransas, Ingleside by the Bay Ingleside, Aransas Pass and much of San Patricio County,” the mayor said.

“This type approach serves no good purpose, and we view it as an adversarial approach to regional dominance in making the navigation district into the greatest port in the nation at the cost and expense of the citizens of our region,” Bujan said.

It was unclear how the port might react to the emergency ordinance’s language that the city will consider rezoning some of Harbor Island and put new controls on development there. Port spokesmen didn’t return messages left by the South Jetty.

Any look at the city’s development controls on Harbor Island raises the question of how that might be influenced by the town’s harbor lease with the Port of Corpus Christi.

In March 2018, the council approved a new harbor lease with the Port of Corpus Christi. It included a provision that the 30-year lease will be terminated if the City of Port Aransas changes Harbor Island’s zoning to further restrict development there.

Asked about that by a South Jetty reporter, Bujan pointed out that the city hasn’t made a decision to rezone anything yet.

“We simply placed a moratorium on any activity going on over there, including not just the port but the entire Harbor Island area to give us time to look at what our ordinances are and whether they’re sufficient to handle that kind of activity,” Bujan said.

The marina lease “will be taken into consideration,” the mayor said.

Bujan expressed doubt that the port will terminate the marina lease.

“Look at it this way,” he said. “What a PR disaster it would be for the navigation district to take away a city’s only livelihood, a marina. Do you really think they want to do that?”

Bujan continued: “We’ve arrived at a point which, by the way, we didn’t ask for, but they created. We negotiated with these folks in good faith about them abiding by our building codes and our ordinances. As far as we were concerned, based on those negotiations, that was what was going to happen. And then we turned around and looked at their agenda and they hired attorneys where they forced us into a situation.”