Rocky Landing

Residents of this seaside neighborhood are about to be joined by a 1,000-acre port facility

At a total cost of $1.2 billion, the proposed Bayport project was a facility that would cover 1,000 acres and dwarf Barbours Cut, which is the nation's ninth-largest port for container shipping.

"We're all sitting there at the meeting, and our jaws are just dropping on the floor," Cherry says. "It was like a left hook that came out of nowhere."

Cherry had only recently moved to El Jardin after eight years in Seattle, but she was intimately familiar with the place. Her husband's family has lived there for generations. "When I was dating my husband 17 years ago, he took me to El Jardin, and I couldn't believe it," she says. "There was this very weird little community all off by itself, right on the Bay. You can be living side by side with someone in a trailer, or someone who's been living here in a house since the '30s."

El Jardin residents aren't strangers to industry: Chemical plants, and the occasional smell from them, are more prevalent here than one would think possible in a place residents are so enthusiastic about. But the size of the proposed Bayport project staggered people.

"Everyone knew the port would be developed one day, but no one expected this huge a development right in the middle of two residential neighborhoods," says one of Cherry's allies, an engineer who doesn't want his name used.

Although Port officials will tell you residents should not have been surprised, it's hard to see where they could have found out about the project. A large Houston Chronicle story on proposed Port expansion, which ran just two months before the Seabrook meeting, said the Port Authority "plans to spend $100.7 million over the next three years developing this [Bayport] container terminal, which will be 425 acres once fully developed." Apparently the paper was referring only to Phase One of the project.

Residents were not mollified when Port officials tried to explain that the complete $1.2 billion project, if built, would not be finished for 15 to 20 years. That talk was at odds with the Port's aggressive lobbying for expansion funds at the county and federal levels, they thought, during which officials were complaining of a pressing need for new facilities that had to be built as fast as possible.

And even if the project took a full 20 years to complete, that would mean only a slower death for their neighborhood, Cherry says. "It's like we've been diagnosed with cancer -- we've been told we're going to die, and we're not symptomatic yet, but in two years, or however many years, our dreams are going to die."

Cherry decided to fight. She engineered a coup on the neighborhood board that ousted representatives seen as too passive to industry. And she did another thing: She walked down the block to the home of Frank Bettencourt.

Bettencourt, 49, is an artist whose walls are adorned with the classic '60s-era posters he designed for Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton and Neil Young, back in the days when he was sharing living space with one-hit hippie wonders the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He still paints, but he also designs museum displays and laser shows for Pink Floyd, Paul McCartney and festivals around the world.

He and his wife, Linda, a NASA astrophysicist, moved into El Jardin 14 months ago. "I had lived in Santa Barbara, and I thought this was like Santa Barbara in the 1960s, without the mountains," he says. "I liked the eclectic feel of the neighborhood, how you would have trailers, and then you'd have really wealthy homes."

"Plus it's real quiet and there are all kinds of birds," his wife says.
Bettencourt had heard a rumor about potential Port development in the area, he says, so before buying his house he called the Port and the cities of Pasadena and Seabrook. All, he says, assured him there were no big plans on tap. (He says he didn't write down the names of the persons he talked to.) Because he got a Federal Housing Authority mortgage, he says the feds did their own checking to see if anything might occur that would lower property values, and also came up empty.

So Bettencourt dismissed the occasional rumor, until the fallout from the Seabrook meeting spread. Now he sits in his living room, probably two miles from the point where huge container ships will pull up to the dock, and imagines the change that's coming.

"A lot of people are going to be affected by this that don't even know it yet," he says. "There's going to be 18 train tracks out there. Go outside right now -- do you hear anything but the birds and the wind and the occasional car? What do you think it's going to be like with a huge rail yard out there?"

Bettencourt had two advantages Cherry didn't -- he worked at home and could more easily make phone calls, and he had a long history of involvement with ecological issues. He contacted the local Sierra Club and started to raise the alarm.

"It never occurred to me that something this massive would be done," says Page Williams, a Sierra Club official who's also secretary of the Galveston Bay Foundation. "We're very angry, because we think the Port has not been leveling with us, and we hope that this time the public will say the Port has gone too far."

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