‘Blindsided’ Cameron County sought to buy land proposed in TPWD, SpaceX land swap

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A proposed deal for the state to give SpaceX 43 acres of Boca Chica State Park in exchange for 477 acres near Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge was the “best kept secret in Texas” until it appeared as Item 9 on the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission’s Jan. 25 meeting agenda.

So says Precinct 3 Cameron County Commissioner David Garza, who said the county was in the process of trying to acquire the 477 acres straddling S.H. 100 at Laguna Vista when the proposed swap became public. Garza said the county was blindsided by the news, as were the eight different agencies the county was working with toward securing the property.

The largest parcel, slighter under 430 acres, abuts the county’s South Texas Ecotourism Center (STEC), which opened in February 2022. The county’s plan was to purchase the parcel — home to nilgai and other wildlife — using RESTORE Act funds allotted to the county, and preserve it in its natural state in accordance with rules governing the RESTORE funds — part of billions of dollars in penalties levied against BP following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

“We didn’t have a problem with that, if that’s what we needed to do to protect it,” Garza said. “We have that overlook (at STEC) that you can get up on and see all of that area really nicely.”

The rest of the property, 47.3 acres on the south shore of Laguna Madre, north of S.H. 100, the county was planning to acquire to build parking areas on either end and a walking trail through the length of the parcel for the public to enjoy the wildlife and scenery, he said. Those plans were included in the required application the county sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Jan. 9, Garza said.

The county had also proposed to create “passive recreational opportunities” there such as a kayak launch, wade fishing, bird-watching stations and informational signs about the native flora and fauna, he said.

“It would be an educational extension of the STEC,” Garza said. “We had agreed with the (Texas General Land Office) and the Texas Conservation Fund and NOAA that we would never disturb more than 10% of that property with either walkways or anything else, parking lots, bathrooms, whatever we would do there,” Garza said.

The parcel would have been maintained by the county and STEC. Garza said it was NOAA that initially contacted the contacted the county about buying the the parcel, using funds available through the GLO.

“They called us and they chose that property to help us acquire,” he said. “Anyone that drives along 100 knows the kind of pressure the property facing the Lower Laguna is under with the development that’s occurring. That’s the last piece where you can drive on Highway 100 going toward (South Padre Island), look to the north and actually see the Lower Laguna Madre and the Island in the distance.”

Cameron County Commissioner David A. Garza makes his closing remarks Tuesday during a ribbon cutting and grand opening ceremony of South Texas Ecotourism Center in Laguna Vista to aid in the understanding and appreciation of ecosystems in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in February 2022. (Miguel Roberts | The Brownsville Herald)

The TPWD commission withdrew Item 9 the day before the Jan. 25 meeting, though the proposal is expected to come up for a vote during the commission’s March 28 meeting. Garza said that as far as he can tell the swap is a “done deal” based on comments from commission Chairman Jeffrey Hildebrand.

“The land exchange is an extremely valuable opportunity to the department, the state of Texas, to provide more recreational opportunities to the public,” Hildebrand said. “I am committed to moving this process forward and completing the transaction.”

The Cameron County Appraisal District lists the owner of the 477 acres as Bahia Grande Holdings LLC, with an address in Dallas. It’s not clear whether SpaceX even owns the land yet in order to be able to grant it to TPWD. SpaceX said it needs the 43 acres at Boca Chica State Park to “expand its operational footprint around its launch facilities.”

Considering that the county gave SpaceX a tax abatement, which allows the company to close S.H. 4 and Boca Chica Beach every time they need it, fields all the complaints from residents about explosions, property damage and other SpaceX-related issues, the least the company could have done was communicate with the county about the proposed swap, Garza said.

He said he hopes that between now and March 28 the county will at least be invited to participate in discussions on development and maintenance of the 477 acres.

“Parks and Wildlife is a great partner with us,” Garza said. “We just don’t understand why in this case we were completely left in the dark. At best now we hope we can be part of what happens to that property.”