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Emotions run high as Bolivar Peninsula residents denounce coastal barrier proposal at public meeting

December 16, 2018

Hundreds of residents and property owners on Bolivar Peninsula packed a small cafeteria at Crenshaw Elementary School in Crystal Beach Saturday afternoon to give the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a healthy dose of their concerns over a proposed 71-mile coastal barrier.

Ever since the proposal of the system of levees and sea gates beginning on high ground north of High Island that would run the length of the peninsula along State Highway 87 in late October, Bolivar residents have been diligently organizing against it. They’ve started Facebook groups, convened town halls and distributed T-shirts emblazoned with “SaveBolivar.org.”

“It’s gonna destroy this whole peninsula,” said Claudia Perkins, a property owner on Bolivar from Fort Worth who attended the meeting. “The way this is placed, if we had a direct hit hurricane, yeah it’d be great but what if it hits further north? I think they didn’t reach out to the public.”

The anti-coastal barrier movement reached such a fever pitch on Bolivar that there were concerns as to whether Crenshaw Elementary would be able to fit all those hoping to attend Saturday’s public meeting hosted by the Army Corps of Engineers and Texas General Land Office, the nonfederal sponsor of the project.

Saturday’s meeting was a late addition to the slate of public meetings about the coastal barrier proposal, and the General Land Office, in an attempt to allay the concerns of Bolivar residents, requested late on Friday that the Army Corps organize a second meeting to accommodate any residents or property owners unable to squeeze into the Crenshaw Elementary cafeteria, which can only hold 250 people. That meeting hasn’t been scheduled yet.

The land office is also hoping to extend the 75-day public comment period on the proposal, which ends on Jan. 9, and tack on an additional public comment period within the next year after the Army Corps has time to evaluate public feedback.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush even issued a statement that pushed the Army Corps to move the proposed barrier toward the beach and away from the main highway where it could displace homes and businesses on both Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston Island.

“I support locating the barrier on or along the beach, however data and engineering studies must still be done to before we can determine the placement of the levee,” Bush said. “We are listening. I will continue to work to ensure that public comments are carefully considered and included as we move forward with this draft proposal.”

Ahead of the public meeting, representatives from the Army Corps of Engineers and General Land Office lined the hallways of Crenshaw, standing next to poster boards with information about the proposal, which is estimated to cost between $23 and $31 billion. A group of Bolivar residents crowded around Edmond Russio, deputy district engineer for the Army Corps’ Galveston district, peppering him with questions on whether the barrier would require eminent domain (the Corps has been adamant that eminent domain would be a last resort).

Russo likened the current proposal to picking a race horse — that the Corps has selected its frontrunner — a coastal barrier — but the horse’s color, pedigree, size — i.e. the exact alignment of the barrier and what shape it would take — still needs to be determined. He said that most of the Bolivar property owners he spoke with were concerned with road access to the coast, property values and flooding.

“What I was trying to tell folks is we have to build that into our plan,” Russo said. “We can’t adversely impact your property values without fair market compensation, we can’t induce flooding without providing for interior drainage and pumping or elevating a low home, we have to cover that. We can’t just say, ‘Sorry.’”

Judging by an emotional public comment period at the end of Saturday’s public meeting, that message of caution did not quite get through to Bolivar homeowners. Every resident who delivered a one-minute comment spoke out against the proposal. Several choked up when describing their fear of what the coastal barrier would mean for their home or business.

“You want to take away my life, my business, my home,” said Andrea Sims-Kaptchinskie, who owns Hardheads Icehouse & Grill on Highway 87. “Your red line goes right on top of my business.”

At one point during the public comment period, David Wukoson, an attorney and property owner on Bolivar, turned to Col. Lars Zetterstrom, the commander of the Galveston district of the Army Corps of Engineers, and berated him.

“I’m kind of offended by y’all, y’all must think we’re stupid,” Wukoson said. “I’m offended because this is a done deal. Y’all are hammers, and all you see are nails. You’re gonna build this thing because you’re engineers.”

Other commenters voiced more salient environmental concerns about the project. Greg Whitaker, who sits on the board of directors at Houston Audubon, which owns a significant amount of land on the peninsula for protected bird sanctuaries, lamented the Corps’ lack of consideration for those protected areas in the draft study released in October.

Ellis Pickett, who works for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of beaches and the ocean, was most concerned that a seawall built on the peninsula would impede public access to the beach.

“Public beach access is our main issue on this project,” Pickett said. “If the thing is built on the beach, I haven’t seen any provision that says that they’re going to be able to maintain a public beach in front of the (barrier).”

Azure Bevington, an ecologist who lives on High Island, called the proposed alignment of the barrier along Highway 87 “unconsciable,” and a beach placement of a barrier “unacceptable” because it would exacerbate sea level rise and accelerate beach erosion.

“Col. Zetterstrom expressed to a number of people at the meeting in Winnie that this will protect us from sea level rise, that is extremely false,” Bevington said. “We will lose our beach if we build it there. There is not enough sand to cover a wall, it is no such thing as an engineered dune. There are dunes and there are walls covered in sand. That is it.”

The audience cheered and hollered after each passionate comment, an echo chamber of solidarity and affirmation for a community that considers itself one giant, extended family.

With half a dozen public meetings on the coastal barrier proposal in the books and one more to go during the public comment period — in Seabrook on Dec. 18 — Army Corps and General Land Office officials know they have their work cut out for them to convince a highly skeptical public that the project is designed to serve the greater good.

“We’re getting there. Anything like this, you have to build trust and support, there’s just a natural skepticism that is totally understandable,” said Kaleb Bennett, whom, as deputy director for federal relations at the General Land Office, is responsible for the eventual lobbying of the federal government to pay for the project. “We really have to thread the needle on this thing. We have to do this so the community likes it, the environmentalist groups like it and industry likes it.”

nick.powell@chron.com

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