Promises, Promises

Skeptics say the Port could break more pledges involving Bayport

Morgan's Point resident George Paulissen remembers when the Port of Houston took over the town. In exchange for condemning half of Morgan Point's land and driving off a third of its voters, the Port Authority offered several amenities. The two that everyone remembers were a park along the water and a green buffer along Barbour's Cut Boulevard, to separate the remaining residents from the relentless noise and lights of the terminal.

Though the agreement was well chronicled in the local newspapers, it was never formalized on paper. "Nothing in writing," says Paulissen, who now heads the town's Planning and Zoning Commission. "They wouldn't do that."

More than 25 years later, Paulissen and his fellow Morgan's Pointers are still waiting for their park. The Port did plant a few oleanders along the boulevard, but many were later cut down, as they created a traffic hazard. The primary buffer for many residents is a string of abandoned, rat-infested warehouses.

Asked about Morgan's Point, Port of Houston Authority spokeswoman Rosie Barrera chooses her words carefully. "Are you talking about some promises that may or may not have been made?" Barrera asks.

Barrera says that after Port officials heard about the alleged promises, they researched the matter and concluded that the previous administration had in fact discussed community improvements. A buffer plan is now in the works, and though Port representatives believe the park was rejected by Morgan's Point for safety reasons, they're willing to discuss the matter. "We made the commitment that we would do now whatever it is that we didn't do 25 years ago," Barrera says.

That sounds fine, though Paulissen isn't buying it. The community did not reject the park, he says, and he still hasn't seen anything that guarantees the Port will live up to its promises. "I don't trust 'em worth a damn," he says.

That lack of trust is shared by many residents in the Bay communities that have dealt with the Port, and not just because of the Morgan's Point experience. Ginny Garrett, commodore of the Houston Yacht Club, says she's tired of hearing how the Port is going to take action, only to have the issue drift into oblivion. "My big point is the lack of credibility of the Port," Garrett says. "I truly am convinced you can't believe anything they are saying."

According to Garrett, she and Port Authority Executive Director Tom Kornegay have discussed a continuing problem with the buildup of silt in the club's harbor. Her group believes the siltation, which has rendered parts of the harbor too shallow for mooring, is in part caused by wave action from Ship Channel traffic. A Port lawyer has told Garrett that as a private entity, the yacht club is ineligible for financial help from the Port. But at a September 9 lunch meeting, Kornegay again raised the issue -- as though the Port might help in some way.

Garrett recalls another meeting with Kornegay about 18 months ago, where a member brought up the Morgan's Point promises. "Tom acted so surprised," she recalls. "He said, 'We'll get right on it. Consider it done.' "

That's about the same reaction Kornegay had when someone raised the issue at a meeting of Seabrook residents -- more than a year later.

Bay Colony resident Jerrold Graham has likewise heard the Port repeat itself. From his front porch, Graham has been watching the shore north of the Bayport channel erode for the past 34 years. According to residents of Bay Colony and neighboring Shoreacres, the Port is supposed to maintain a 300-foot buffer between the edge of the towns and the water. But in some places, the buffer has shrunk to less than 100 feet. Some of the houses closest to shore are having foundation problems.

In the mid-1970s ARCO wanted to build a plant on the north side of the channel, and the residents fought it. Graham and other area residents attended a meeting with then-Port director George Altvater and ARCO officials about the proposed project. At the meeting, Altvater offered to create a tree-lined greenbelt to buffer citizens from the plant. But they have no proof that such an offer was tendered. "We wanted to record the meeting, but they wouldn't have any of that," Graham says. "They were very careful not to make promises where you could prove they said this."

Five years ago residents brought the erosion issue to the Port's attention, and a plan to control the erosion was promised. It's still in the works.

Barrera says the Port has applied for permits to stop the erosion. "Certainly there is erosion, caused either by natural wave action or ships that serve the chemical companies there," she says. Permits to restore the 300 feet of shoreline are nearly impossible to obtain, she says, but the Port has committed $10 million to the project if it's approved. Otherwise, the Port may have to settle for lining the existing shore with riprap (a wall of boulders and rocks).

Graham remains skeptical. "The latest I've heard is that they're not going to do anything about the erosion until they get that [Bayport container terminal] in there."

Opponents of the Bayport project point to these and other promises made by the Port over the years as evidence that the guarantees about the container terminal are not to be believed. "The priority of the Port is getting the deal, and not in implementing the agreement," says Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney and organizer of Bayport opposition.

Blackburn points to the continuing deepening and widening of the Ship Channel as an example. A key element of the agreement that cleared the way for the project calls for dredge material to be used to create wetlands and other beneficial wildlife habitats. The material is to be contained in various ways so that it doesn't escape and bury valuable oyster beds.

It's already escaping. A plume of mud is flowing away from the first dredge spoil area to be constructed, at the Bolivar Peninsula, burying everything in its path. "There has been some sediment that has escaped, and there is a plume of that sediment," admits Barrera, though she counters that the various state and federal agencies working together on the project say "that happens to be naturally what occurs."

But that's not supposed to be what occurs, at least according to the studies that are the basis for the agreement. "I think that's clearly a broken promise," Blackburn says.

Recently the Port has been making a new set of promises. As the bond referendum for the Bayport terminal approaches, the Port has been courting the city of Seabrook, which is on record opposing the project. In exchange for the town's maintaining a "neutral position" on Bayport, according to a Port proposal to the Seabrook City Council, Seabrook would get certain "amenities." These include a new sewage treatment plant, fire station, parklands, landscaping and a buffer zone. The council adopted a modified version of the proposal, which has divided the community. A contract with the Port is allegedly in the works, though nothing is yet committed to writing.

Councilmember Chuck Cheadle, a Bayport opponent, doesn't believe the city should negotiate with the Port. "I question whether they can give us these [amenities], or whether they will," Cheadle says. "The Port's track record on coming through on their promises is poor."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.

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