Posted September 10, 2019
The Port of Corpus Christi has filed a lawsuit against the city of Port Aransas in an effort to reverse a 60-day moratorium the city council imposed on development of Harbor Island.
The legal challenge, filed Sept. 3, is the latest escalation as it relates to the port's plans for Harbor Island. The port is looking to build a marine terminal on property it owns on the island, which is in Port Aransas, that is capable of loading Very Large Crude Carriers.
The project has drawn heavy concerns from Port Aransas residents and officials over the potential impacts on the marine life and environment, despite assurances from port leaders the project would be done in an environmentally responsible way.
The Port Aransas City Council voted last week to impose a 60-day moratorium on any Harbor Island development and any issuing of property development permits, and the port's lawsuit seeks to have that moratorium lifted. The port in its lawsuit argues that the city's efforts to impede its plans for its property runs counter to federal and state law governing oil and gas development.
"Whether the United States' ship channel (known as the Corpus Christi Ship Channel) gets dredged to a deeper depth is the prerogative of the United States (specifically, the United States Army Corps of Engineers) not the City," the lawsuit states. "Whether the State of Texas (specifically the TCEQ) issues an air quality permit is the prerogative of the State of Texas, not the City."
"It is not the prerogative of the City to pass ordinances to delay or stop the Port Authority's 'oil and gas operation' activities on Harbor Island; instead the laws of the State of Texas and federal laws govern," the lawsuit states. "Therefore, the city's ordinances are too broadly crafted, inconsistent with those state and federal processes that already regulate the Port Authority's activities on Harbor Island, so they are preempted."
The port's lawsuit also cites a lease the Port Aransas City Council approved in April 2018 for its marina. The lease includes a clause in which the city acknowledges the "importance of Harbor Island to the operation and development of the Port of Corpus Christi," and agrees not to alter the industrial use zoning or the Harbor Island District Regulations to "become more restrictive as to the uses to which property within the HI District may now be put."
Port Aransas City Manager David Parsons said last week that the city was only trying to protect its permitting authority as it relates to the Harbor Island project. The moratorium passed on Aug. 29 also cites a number of reasons for the moratorium, including the fact that the city is in the process of rebuilding its fire department, which was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017.
Because of that, the city felt a "public emergency exists" because it does not have the capability to provide fire protection services and emergency response to heavy industrial uses on Harbor Island." The moratorium also cites concerns the city has with the "extremely rapid growth" that has put it in danger of "losing the charm which makes it an attractive, unique venue."
The moratorium, the document states, is meant to allow the city council a chance to look at imposing additional controls on Harbor Island development to prevent projects that could "adversely affect, damage or destroy the aesthetics or environment of the city."
Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan on Thursday said legal counsel for the city was reviewing the port's lawsuit, and could file a response at a future date.
"We intend to resist, and vigorously defend our position," he said.
The port also sent a Sept. 4 letter to Parsons stating the port was terminating its lease with the city for the marina property.
"The language of the Marina Lease is quite clear," stated Sam Esquivel, the port's director of real estate services, in his letter. "The Port Authority unmistakably communicated the importance of the Harbor Island development to the city."
"In return, the City recognized the importance of assuring that the city would not do anything to further restrict the development of Harbor Island — or else lose its (the city's) lease on the 30.07 acres made the subject o the Marina Lease," Esquivel wrote.
Bujan said the city planned to challenge that assertion.
"We disagree with that letter, and we intend to rebut that," he said. "We dispute their finding."