SpaceX’s expansion into state park land nearly certain after Texas approves pursuing land swap deal

Texas Parks and Wildlife voted to pursue acquiring 477 acres of land that SpaceX has offered the agency in exchange for 43 acres of state park land around the company’s South Texas facility.

By Gaige Davila, Texas Public RadioMarch 5, 2024 11:37 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

Texas’ parks department approved pursuing a swap of 43 acres of state park to SpaceX in exchange for nearly 500 acres of privately-owned land outside of Port Isabel.

Mired in controversy, the Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) Commission voted unanimously on Monday despite Rio Grande Valley residents pleading with the commissioners to vote against the swap for nearly four hours.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will now launch an environmental assessment of the 477 acres of land offered to the agency by SpaceX, which will include a 30-day public comment period. TPWD attorneys said during the vote that the agency will be exploring how it will be acquiring the 477 acres from SpaceX and if there will be any “deal breakers” that could risk its acquisition.

Commissioners meant to vote on the land exchange in late January but delayed it after the agency received over a thousand written public comments opposing the swap. The comments included criticism about the agency’s rushing to vote on the swap and the value of Boca Chica State Park land, which has sensitive algal flats for shorebirds, versus the Tamaulipan thorn scrub of the land SpaceX offered.

In the last month, written support for the land exchange grew. TPWD received over 660 comments in support since delaying the vote, including from local elected officials initially opposed to the swap, and around 330 comments in opposition. But the written comments supporting the deal were still over 400 shy of those opposed to it.

That opposition showed during the public comment period of the vote held at TPWD’s Austin headquarters on Monday, voiced by dozens of Rio Grande Valley residents who drove six hours to attend.

They and others raised questions about the necessity of the swap, why TPWD did not hold a meeting on the land exchange in Cameron County where the lands are located, whether the agency needed to give SpaceX state park land to acquire the 477 acres the company was offering, if the land exchange met legal requirements and whether the swap was in the public’s interest.

There was also substantial criticism on public accessibility, particularly on how the notices posted for TPWD’s initial meeting on the land exchange were not done according to code, that the notices were posted mostly in English and that Spanish translation services during the meeting were inaccurate.

A portion of the 477 acres of land SpaceX is acquiring to trade to Texas Parks and Wildlife.
Gaige Davila / TPR

“The process, the notice and this public meeting seems to have been intended to impede participation by the public, especially those who would be most impacted by the decision,” Marisa Perales, an environmental justice attorney based in Austin said to the commissioners.

Along with questions and concerns about the land swap were signs of an exhausted locale, frustrated with the noise and explosions of SpaceX’s test launches, the lack of access to Boca Chica Beach, not being listened to by elected officials and not acknowledging that the land is sacred ground for the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas.

“Families have been gathering to enjoy Boca Chica Beach for 25,000 years, longer than Texas has existed. Longer than the United States has existed on the point of due diligence,” Christopher Basaldu, a Brownsville resident and member of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas, said, mentioning that neither SpaceX, Cameron County or TPWD met with the tribe about the plans. “Consultation is not consent and you don’t have consent. You haven’t even bothered to consult. Neither has SpaceX, neither has Cameron County.”

Josette Cruz of Brownsville, who spoke to the commission with her disabled child by her side, said her child was terrified by the noise and ground-shaking that comes from SpaceX launches and tests.

“The lands belong to the public, they belong to the future generations: which is my children, my nieces, my nephews,” Cruz said. “These lands deserve to remain in stewardship of the Carrizo Comecrudo Tribe of Texas. SpaceX’s CEO [Elon Musk] continues to throw around the narrative that he’s the sole person who can save humanity. There’s nothing humanitarian about destroying ecosystems and public access in the name of a selfish vanity project.”

Officials from across the state have been criticized for bending to Musk’s will, another point brought up during the meeting.

Employee housing construction at Boca Chica Village in December 2023.
Gaige Davila / TPR

“Watching this as a local, as a Texas resident, as someone who works in policy, this is especially bleak considering the state doesn’t gain anything from this land swap,” Sadie Hernandez, who was born and raised in Brownsville, said to the commissioners. “It seems to me that the folks who are interested in this land swap, while disregarding people here, are more interested in the validation and the fantasy of pretending they’re rubbing elbows with Elon Musk over people that live in the community.”

SpaceX has not purchased the land yet, according to TPWD Land Conservation Branch Manager Jason Estrella. SpaceX is still negotiating the sale with the land owner. Once the purchase happens, the company will transfer the land to TPWD.

David Yoskowitz, TPWD’s executive director, said SpaceX had first approached the agency about acquiring the 43 acres in 2019 and again last fall. The 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park is spread sporadically around SpaceX’s production and launch facilities in and around Boca Chica Beach and mostly not accessible to the public.

The land SpaceX offered to the state is 477 acres surrounding Laguna Heights and Laguna Vista, owned by Bahia Grande Holdings, an apparent subsidiary of Conservation Equity Partners, spread between two parcels.

Though SpaceX hasn’t said directly why they wanted the 43 acres around its site, the company is in the middle of a massive expansion project, including employee housing and office space.

Kathy Lueders, SpaceX’s General Manager for the company’s South Texas facility, who spoke in favor of the land exchange in between jeers from the audience, did not disclose what the company wants to do with the 43 acres.

TPWD says the vote coincided with Texans wanting more “public recreational opportunities,” citing the constitutional amendment that was passed last November to create more state parks using the Centennial Parks Conservation Fund.

That fund could have been used to purchase the 477 acres outright rather than give SpaceX land in exchange for it, some speakers noted.

“If we think the 477 acres are valuable, go and buy it,” Cyrus Reed, the Legislative and Conservation Director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter told the TPWD commissioners. “The voters of Texas have given you money to purchase valuable land. If the 477 acres is valuable, and I think it is, we should buy it without giving up 43 acres.”

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