Besieged by the Bay

Beset by skyrocketing tax assessments and wary of encroaching development, property owners in San Leon-Bacliff wonder if their "poor man's Riviera" may soon go the way of other waterfront zones along Galveston Bay.

And the magnitude of the increases raises a fundamental question of fairness, even if the CAD can defend its actions.

"Whether it's fair or not, I don't think so," says Galveston County Tax Assessor-Collector Chuck Wilson, who also serves as an appointee on the CAD board. "But I'm not the person who calls that shot."

And while he sympathizes with the concerns of the residents, Ken Wright says the CAD's mandate doesn't permit it to take an individual's economic circumstances into account when valuing property.

"Our job is fairly straightforward and very easy, really," says Wright. "We try and divorce ourselves from the human element as much as possible."

Not much happens in San Leon and Bacliff. The fishing industry, once the foundation of the local economy, has been declining for years. Unlike in nearby Kemah, where restaurants and gift shops line the streets and pleasure craft have mostly replaced the shrimp and oyster boats at the docks, tourism hasn't yet rejuvenated the local economy. Nor have the many beer joints that dot the landscape -- at $1 a Lone Star, profit margins are small.

San Leon doesn't entirely lack for excitement. An occasional murder or fatal accident provides good gossip for the beer halls. In 1990, a Greek tanker collided with two barges three miles offshore, sinking one and spilling 700,000 gallons of oil into the bay. Local oystermen nearly declared war when the state canceled the 1987 oyster season due to depleted stocks.

But for the most part, the town plods along in a sleepy, small-town way, insulated from the swirling social and political currents of Galveston to the south and Houston to the north. Even the throngs who travel to Kemah for weekend recreation seem unaware of San Leon's existence. "Most Houstonians don't have a clue about it," says Clay Moore, a Houston attorney who bought a getaway place in San Leon and moved there permanently about five years ago.

Still, San Leon is a veritable beehive compared to its early days, when the landscape mostly consisted of a few vast fig farms and a cannery. "The figs grew like you wouldn't believe," recalls Buck Smith, who built his ramshackle house on the bay in 1947. "During the [canning] season, this whole peninsula smelled like fig preserves."

The cannery closed before World War II; the fig farms stopped harvesting in the late 1950s. Petrochemical plants rose to the south in Texas City and provided jobs for some of the residents. Others worked the oyster beds offshore or fished the rich waters of Galveston Bay for a living. Much of the peninsula was subdivided into lots and put up for sale. Many of the interior lots remain undeveloped and overgrown, creating the impression of a natural prairie bordered by clusters of houses. "It's not prairie," notes Smith. "It's 25-foot lots all cut up."

The waterfront was first developed in the 1930s, as city dwellers looking for a temporary escape built small weekend and summer cottages. Back then, land was cheap. Dora McWhirter, a Bacliff resident who has lived in the area for almost 70 years, first bought property there in 1936 for $500 -- including a house. "You could buy any lot you wanted for $25," recalls McWhirter, who lived on a fig farm in her youth and later worked at the cannery.

Over the years, the price of land inflated, but San Leon remained relatively affordable. As waterfront property in Galveston and elsewhere on the bay grew increasingly expensive, middle-class families and retirees who wanted to live on the water chose San Leon and Bacliff, the "poor man's Riviera," as some locals called the area. Where only a handful of full-timers once lived, permanent residents now comprise the majority in many bayfront neighborhoods.

The area remains economically depressed. Few businesses have moved into San Leon or Bacliff, and jobs are scarce. With yields declining, many shrimp and oyster boats sit idle. The housing stock reflects the economy -- away from the waterfront, sagging, patched wood-frame houses and grungy trailers rule the yards.

Though a little better maintained, the houses on the waterfront more resembled their interior neighbors than typical coastal estates. When funds permitted, owners would tack on additions, renovate their bulkheads or otherwise make spot improvements, the improvised feel in keeping with the ever-shifting coastline.

Eventually, someone with plenty of cash and a grand vision was bound to notice the large and comparatively cheap stretches of waterfront in San Leon and Bacliff. ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill built his dream palace several years ago on the peninsula's north shore. Local businessman Chuck Jardina purchased prime real estate, constructed expensive houses on it and resold to wealthy buyers at a nice profit. New three-story beach-style vacation homes sprouted next to the older dwellings, creating an odd aesthetic mix similar to the blocks of West University Place where huge Tudor mansions tower above the surviving ranch-style teardowns.

Sales to the well-heeled are about the only ones taking place in the area. Wary of the threat of hurricanes, banks are reluctant to make loans for construction along the shoreline, meaning that buyers generally have to finance the sales themselves. Maintenance of the bulkheads and other protective measures are extremely pricey, as is insurance, if you can get it. About the only people who can afford to buy and build anymore have big-balance bank accounts.

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