Rocky Landing

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

"You either have to grow or get out of the business," he says. "You either tell your customers, 'Don't come, there's no room for you,' or you grow.... You never want to turn anyone away -- once you do, just try and get them back later."

The jobs and subsidiary business spawned by the container business more than justify expansion, Port officials say.

"You take a Barbours Cut, which cost maybe $300 million to build over a 20-year period, and you see it's generating $755 million to the community each year," Barrera says. "It's payback to the community, and it's phenomenal."

That's the Houston community, by the way. Which is one reason officials dismiss any talk of building their port in Texas City, which is in Galveston County, not Harris County.

"I don't know what Texas City has and doesn't have," Williamson says. "But one thing it does have is a distance problem from the industrial center of Houston. The container business is so competitive that if you would have to truck from Houston to Texas City and back, that cost would be too significant."

"It's not boosterism, it's infrastructure," Barrera says. Officials deny what area residents allege, that the Port is firmly committed to the Bayport site because of a $150 million chemical plant to be built nearby by American Acryl, a company that is a joint venture of Nippon Shokubai, a Japanese petrochemical firm, and Elf Atochem, a French firm that has been cited for pollution problems at plants it owns in east Harris County.

As far as the Port is concerned, Bayport is the only way to go. "One of the best things about it is, it's a greenfield site," says Steven DeWolf, the Port's chief engineer. "There's not a lot of existing stuff that's already there, so you're able to build from the ground up."

And although officials insist that the ultimate 1,000-acre build-out of the Bayport design shown on the master plan might take 20 years to complete, Williamson and others obviously would like to ride the hot market as far as it can go.

"You build one phase and get the cash flow coming in, and that can help you fund further construction," Williamson says.

He can easily envision eventually reaching the capacity of Bayport, a time when, according to the proposal, 57 lengthy trains will rumble into the yards in a peak week, and 7,000 trucks will enter or leave the facility on a peak day.

That, of course, is what's gotten people like Charlotte Cherry so worked up, and adding to their anger is the piecemeal way that information has dribbled out about the project. The El Jardin residents and their allies who are most active in opposing the project feel they've been getting the runaround from Port officials.

"They're telling something different to each town they talk to," Cherry fumes. "They're trying to divide us subdivision by subdivision."

Barrera, who's leading the community-relations effort, denies that, but says that different towns have different agendas.

"We showed a plan that had a scenic route and buffers around El Jardin, and Seabrook didn't want it," she says. "They said, 'You're crazy to do all that just to please [El Jardin].' So the messages we get are somewhat contradictory."

Barrera admits that different maps of the proposed project have been circulating, partly because the Port only recently received its official, if still preliminary, recommendations on Bayport.

The maps show a lovely cruise terminal on land bumping up against El Jardin, with a large lakelike marina and lots of green space. The trouble is, that's the part of the project that's least likely to get built.

"It's the iffiest part of it," Barrera admits.
"We need a cruise component in the project, but you're not going to have a build-out like that [on the map] anytime soon," Williamson says. And yes, he says, confirming residents' suspicions, the land could be used instead for more container space if demand requires it.

The group opposing the Bayport project is still in its infancy, and many are unschooled in fighting big business. They've already been dismayed by a June 1 Houston Chronicle article on their fight.

Headlined "Concern and Rumors Rock Bayport Project," the article, in its third paragraph, declared that Barrera "says many of the concerns are based on a lot of erroneous supposition and that the plans are not yet final."

Deep down in the article, the first local resident to be quoted notes that rumors had spread throughout El Jardin that the Port planned to bulldoze the entire neighborhood, but that "after reviewing the proposed plans, [he] has no problem with the Port developing the area around El Jardin."

"That kind of let us know what we were up against, the power the Port has," Cherry says.

Luckily for her group, there are hoops of all kinds for the Port to jump through before the entire $1.2 billion project becomes a reality.

There are environment questions, for instance -- Port officials admit that up to 200 acres of wetlands would be destroyed.

"But just how many [acres], we don't know, and they certainly don't know, because they haven't been on the property," Barrera says. "But there are mitigation issues that can come into play. In 1989, when we dredged the Ship Channel, we used the dredge material for islands. We can talk to the Galveston Bay Foundation about creating an interactive nature center. There are all sorts of ways to maximize the mitigation: You could fill in pothole wetlands and make something continuous."

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