Texas parks department agrees to delay SpaceX land exchange deal after public says process was rushed

SpaceX is looking to exchange 477 acres of land near a national wildlife refuge for 43 acres of state park land near the company’s facility in South Texas.

By Gaige Davila, Texas Public RadioJanuary 31, 2024 10:00 am, ,

From Texas Public Radio:

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Commission will now decide in March whether to give SpaceX over 40 acres of state park land.

TPWD is considering trading 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park land for 477 acres of land near the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge’s Bahia Grande Unit in between Laguna Vista and Laguna Heights, just outside of Port Isabel. SpaceX is attempting to expand its production facility at Boca Chica Beach into state park land and offered the land in exchange, according to a notice by TPWD.

TPWD’s commissioners were set to vote on the exchange on Thursday, January 25. But after returning from executive session on Wednesday the commissioners said they would vote during their March meeting.

Trey Vick, TPWD’s Land Conservation Program Project Manager, said the agency received over 1,039 comments against the land exchange and another 263 for it. Vick also said TPWD received a letter from Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr against the project.

“We don’t want to deviate from the standard protocol that we use to acquire acreage,” Jeffery D. Hildebrand, chairman of the TPWD Commission, said after delaying the vote. “We think, as well, withdrawing the item allows for more transparency, more public comments to be provided on that exchange of the land.”

Hildebrand was still intent on “completing the transaction” despite the delay, saying the land exchange was an opportunity to expand the agency’s park system and was “of essential importance to the State of Texas.”

The exchange deal has been criticized locally and across the state for the short time the public was given notice of its existence.

In a letter to the commission, Sierra Club Legislation and Conservation Director, Lone Star Chapter, Cyrus Reed said the agency was not giving the public enough time to assess and comment on the land swap. Specifically, Reed pointed at Chapter 26 of TPWD’s code which addresses hearing notices for public parks and land. That code says notice for hearings need to be posted 30 days before the TPWD commission meets and that a notice must be published for three consecutive weeks.

According to the Sierra Club and TPR’s own analysis of when the hearings were posted, TPWD’s first notice of the land swap was published in the Brownsville Herald on January 6, which is 18 days before the TPWD’s scheduled commission meeting on January 25.

Subsequent notices were published for two consecutive weeks in the Brownsville Herald on January 10 and January 13. The code also says that the newspaper notices are published in must be circulated 6 days a week. The Brownsville Herald, along with AIM Media’s other news publications, is only published twice a week.

TPWD did not respond to TPR’s questions on whether the agency would post notices in Spanish or why the notices were not published to code.

“There are lots of controversial issues [TPWD] deal with in which they have multiple public inputs and multiple sessions to get input,” Reed told TPR. “We’re just asking for maybe not exactly the same process, but a little more opportunity to dig into the particulars and to us it feels like it’s being rushed. And yes, that will benefit one particular industrial applicant, SpaceX, but that may not be in the interest of the people that have gone to Boca Chica for decades.”

Save RGV, a nonprofit group advocating against the development of liquified natural gas plants and SpaceX in the Rio Grande Valley, worries how the land exchange could impact sensitive wildlife areas in the future.

“The proposed exchange will further environmental impacts, including more light, noise, run-off, pollution and traffic,” Mary Angela Branch, Save RGV member, said in a public comment to the TPWD commission. “This exchange would set a bad precedent for trading away unique sensitive habitat and public land.”

Save RGV posed several questions to TPWD, namely what SpaceX is planning to do with the 43 acres, why the public wasn’t informed of the exchange sooner, whether environmental studies will be conducted, who owns the land SpaceX is offering in the exchange and how the exchange will impact beach closures at Boca Chica.

Another question posed by Save RGV is whether TPWD possibly blocked a land purchase by Cameron County, where both of the parcels of land are located. One commissioner has pushed back at the exchange deal, saying the county had plans to use the land for a conservation project of its own.

Cameron County property records say the land SpaceX is offering in the exchange deal is owned by Bahia Grande Holdings, a business with an Austin address. It’s unclear how SpaceX, the landowner and land are connected and how SpaceX can offer it to the state in an exchange deal.

TPWD staff recommended the land exchange deal go through, saying in a notice that it was in the best interest of the agency. TPWD says the 477 acres could give the public access to more recreational activity in the area.

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