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City Greenlights Clayton’s Pier Rezoning

The South Padre Island City Council addressed issues related to the proposed Clayton’s Fishing Pier during their October 4 meeting.

Mayor Barry Patel recused himself from all the agenda items related to the pier and turned control of the meeting over to Mayor Pro-Tem Dennis Stahl.

First up regarding this issue was the City’s proposed annexation plan. As discussed in other meetings, 600 feet of the proposed pier extending out into the Gulf of Mexico would sit outside of the City’s current jurisdiction. Dr. Sungman Kim, director of development services, provided a presentation on the City’s proposed plan to annex the area in question.

Kim explained the process could be completed as soon as February 2018 if started now, and could be completed even sooner if Council is willing to hold special meetings in order to meet all the required steps. Council voted unanimously to approve the proposed annexation plan and agreed to an expedited meeting schedule.

Stahl then opened a public hearing on changing the zoning of the beach area around the proposed pier from its current designation of District B, Multi-family dwelling, apartment, motel, hotel, condominium, townhouse district, to District PBN (Padre Boulevard North) Character zone.

“I think this is just the perfect venue for South Padre Island. This is something that I would take all my kids to,” said the general manager of the Ramada Hotel, one of several community members who spoke in support of the pier and the related rezoning.

Island resident Shane Wilson questioned why the rezoning did not include beach areas farther south of the proposed pier in front of the Tiki Condominiums.

By KEVIN RICH


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2ND ANNUAL SOUTH PADRE ISLAND OPEN WATER FESTIVAL NOVEMBER 4-5

In just a few weeks the Triton Series swings back into South Texas for the 2nd Annual South Padre Island Open Water Festival. Hosted by Rowdy Gaines and directed by well known race director Gregg Cross, the SPI OWF is vibrant proof of the explosive growth that open water swimming and open water sports have experienced across the board in coastal South Texas.

“This island is so unique in the variety of opportunities it provides for training and racing. Our goal with this festival was to create an annual celebration of open water swimming and life by the water in general. It truly is a lifestyle unlike any other, and we are proud to help South Texas welcome the rest of the world to come check it out” explained Casey Taker, Triton Series C.O.O. in an interview last week. “This sport is all about community, we just want to provide an avenue for that community to connect and enjoy an amazing weekend in the water.”

Host Rowdy Gaines (photo: Mike Lewis, Ola Vista Photography)

The South Padre Island Open Water Festival features events including a Sunday November 5th TRITON ONE (1 mile) and TRITON SELECT (5k) in Laguna Madre Bay. Saturday November 4th activities will include a TRITON SPRINT event and other beach training opportunities on the ocean side of the island. All TRITON events will count towards the TRITON SERIES TEXAS CHAMPIONSHIP to be awarded at the end of the weekend. Championship categories include male, female and team categories.

With a focus on community, Triton is making team discounts available for groups of all sizes. In addition, there are event scholarships available to swimmers who were affected by Hurricane Harvey earlier this fall. Information on either of these opportunities can be obtained by emailing info@openwaterplanet.com.

The SPI Open Water Festival is one of many athletic events that has been added to the yearly South Padre Island calendar over the last few years. The island seems to be quickly developing into a tri-athlete and all around aquatic athlete destination powerhouse, and the Triton Series has even hinted at a goal of installing year around open water courses on the island over the next few years.

Register Now for the South Padre Island Open Water Festival! www.southpadreswim.com

About Open Water Planet

Open Water Planet (OWP) was created to provide the open water sports community a place to call their own.  We are spread all over the world but we are alike in so many ways.   We work hard, we play hard. There is always an excuse to travel and the thrills are all the reward  we need.  Our pools have no walls and the lanes are ever-changing. OWP spreads it’s core message of never fearing the unknown through the company’s series of open water events, clinics, swim travel, training programs and custom gear. All specifically aimed at helping those passionate about the water to get where they want to go.

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Island’s City Hall Set to Be Renamed

Mayor Barry Patel sent a message to the Paul Y. Cunningham Jr. family, asking for its permission to rename the South Padre Island city hall after its patriarch.

Cunningham could share stories about riding over to the Island and much, much more. He had stories about the planning of the Island and stories of when he defended the Island from being annexed to Port Isabel.

This week the Island will rename city hall after Cunningham for the leadership and guidance he provided to the city’s growth. He went on to become the Island’s first and only city attorney until his death earlier this year.

“Mr. Cunningham has been an instrumental part of the city for more than 40 years,” said Susan Guthrie, SPI city manager. “This building will serve as a permanent tribute to his service to our community.”

The City of South Padre Island invites the public to the building dedication ceremony in honor of Cunningham’s dedication and contribution to the city. The ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at city hall, located at, 4601 Padre Blvd.

“It’s our small way of showing our appreciation for all the work he has done for the City of South Padre Island,” Patel said. “He was an outstanding city attorney, and had guided the city through many trials and tribulations through the years.”

Cunningham served as the city attorney from South Padre Island’s incorporation in 1973 to February 2017. Cunningham, 74, died after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. He was first diagnosed in October 2016.

He served on the planning and zoning board prior to becoming the city attorney, a post he held for more than 40 years.

“He was a one-of-a-kind man and attorney,” said Bob Pinkerton, former SPI mayor, in an earlier interview. “I served 22 years with him on the council.”

Pinkerton said there was no one better to help guide the city leaders.

“He knew how to put issues and problems into perspective,” Pinkerton said. “He’s going to be missed by many.”

By RAUL GARCIA Staff Writer


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Sandcastle Days Rescued with Extra Sand Barrier

When local sand sculptor Lucinda Wierenga stepped onto the beach by Clayton’s on Thursday morning, she felt terror.

The preparations she and her fellow sculptors had made the night before for Sandcastle Days were washed away by a high tide.

“This is not going to work at all, so what do we do?” Wierenga recalled thinking at the time.

Twelve sculptors, nine of whom are from other parts of the country and the world, had traveled for the competition. The free event offers many activities for families, and every year huge crowds turn out for Sandcastle Days, one of the most popular events on the Island.

Sculptors were busy at work on their creations yesterday, but not before some teamwork came together to make the event possible.

On Thursday, Adolfo Zamora, manager of Clayton’s, said his boss — Clayton Brashear — decided to make a call.

“A lot of people were saying it was going to be canceled because of the high tide, but my boss called the city right away,” Zamora said. “Everyone came to help.”

Brandon Hill, shoreline director for the City of South Padre Island, said that after receiving the call Thursday morning, city crews were on sight within 30 minutes to rectify the situation.

About 450 cubic yards of sand was brought in from Olmito Sand Pit LLC, and barriers were constructed Thursday and Friday to protect the sand sculptures from being washed away again.

“When it comes to things like Sandcastle Days, which is such a pivotal event for the Island, failure is never an option,” Hill said. “It wasn’t a question of were we going to help, but rather how can we help?”

At that point, it was not about the money or the competition anymore, Zamora said.

“We decided, let’s build something for the event, for everyone that’s going. We didn’t want to cancel, so we got (the sculptors) together to build six sand sculptures,” Zamora said.

The sculptors were split into teams of two and merged their ideas together to create something new.

“It’s really been a year of unity for everyone. The sculptors teamed up, the amateurs teamed up, everyone came together,” Hill said.


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Refuge Proposes Reopening Bayside Drive to Traffic

 A four-year hiatus for vehicle traffic on popular Bayside Drive at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge may be coming to an end.

In part to help counter a major decline in visitors since 2013, Laguna Atascosa officials are proposing to reopen the road with some significant changes in what would be a $4.015 million project.

The closure of the popular nature drive to vehicles came after two endangered ocelots were killed by cars on the road despite a 25-mph speed limit. A later ocelot fatality on nearby Buena Vista Road in 2009 sealed the fate of Bayside Drive and its vehicular traffic.

While it was a “tough call” then, refuge Manager Boyd Blihovde said the threat posed by vehicles to the refuge’s 15 or so endangered ocelots made it the right thing to do after trying things like lowering the speed limit to 15 mph.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife official said since that decision to close Bayside Drive, he and the staff at Laguna Atascosa have been trying to find a way to reach a better balance when it comes to visitor access to the refuge. Since 2013, Bayside Drive has only been open to bicyclists and hikers.

But Blihovde said re-opening Bayside Drive would provide an avenue for people who are physically unable to hike, or ride a 15-mile loop on a bicycle, to use the refuge, too.

“We can buy all the land we want and fence it off and say, ‘Nobody can come in here and enjoy this place,’” Blihovde said. “If we do that, we’re not going to get much support from the public, the folks that we work for, the U.S. citizen. Taxpayer dollars are what pay our salaries and buy the land, and we have a responsibility to not only protect wildlife but also give the public a chance to enjoy it.”

What would change

The new proposal would make Bayside Drive a two-way road instead of a 15-mile, one-way loop. It would be widened and opened to traffic over 8.2 miles with a turnaround to be built at the Redhead Ridge parking area.

The southern part of the route on Bayside Drive, where the two ocelots were killed eight years ago, would remain closed.

The proposed changes are laid out in a draft environmental assessment which also includes a number of improvements to the overall refuge, including paving roads and parking lots.

Blihovde encourages those interested in the proposal to help by giving feedback, either by writing a letter to him addressed to the refuge headquarters or via email at boyd_blihovde@fws.gov using EA/Bayside Wildlife Drive” in the subject line.

“This is the public’s chance to give us criticism, or to suggest something different,” he said. “If somebody has a suggestion or something that’s different from what we’ve looked at, we’d definitely take that into consideration and go back to the drawing board.”

The new road would become an out-and-back drive open to vehicles on Fridays and Saturdays, with Sundays and Mondays reserved for bicycle riders. Hikers and bicyclists have had access to the road since it was closed to vehicles in 2013.

How we got here

The closure of Bayside Drive was unpopular with many people, although most understood the importance of limiting the exposure of ocelots to vehicles.

But the refuge nonetheless saw a significant reduction in visitors, and the refuge’s environmental assessment says visits to the refuge are down 34 percent since Bayside Drive was closed to traffic.

Blihovde said despite the support the endangered ocelots have, his experience shows public backing for programs intended to protect endangered species can prove fickle.

“I’ve managed manatees, sea turtles and numerous endangered species, and I’ve seen the public turn against species that were protected because the agency had to do so much to protect them, like close properties, control the speed of boats for manatees and different things like that,” Blihovde said.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer


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Nature Group Purchase Major Stride in Plan for Bahia Grande

A major land acquisition by The Nature Conservancy represents the final piece of the puzzle in the restoration of the sprawling Bahia Grande wetland between Brownsville and the Laguna Madre.

TNC just closed on the purchase of 1,800 acres on the wetland’s north side, according to Boyd Blihovde, manager of the Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, which in 2000 acquired the 21,700-acre “Bahia Grande Unit.” Both are managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

It sort of completes the acquisition for the Bahia Grande wetland,” he said. “The estuary system that is called Bahia Grande, we always were trying to get the whole wetland system, and to the north there was a big chunk that was left out.”

The Bahia Grande was a thriving wetland home to a number of species of fish and wildlife until the tidal flow between it and the Laguna Madre was cut off, starting in the 1930s with construction of the Brownsville Ship Channel and continuing in the 1950s when S.H. 100 was built.

Rancher and philanthropist Frank Yturria, whose family has placed 10,000 acres into wildlife conservation easements to protect the ocelot and aplomado falcon, and whose contributions were instrumental in the Bahia Grande’s resurrection, said he’s old enough to remember before the wetland dried up.

“When I was a kid my mother and father and friends, we’d go to the Bahia Grande to go crabbing.” he said. “There were so many crabs you could just go along the shoreline and scoop them up. You didn’t even need to put out bait.”

Yturria watched the Bahia Grande dry up until it was a desert, which is how it remained for 70 years, choking Laguna Madre communities with dust, until mounting calls to return the water to the Bahia Grande led to concerted action.

Twenty years ago, The Conservation Fund bought the original land tracts from Yturria that got the ball rolling on restoration. In 2005, a 50-foot-wide pilot channel was dug between the ship channel and the Bahia Grande to let the water back in. In 2007, two interior channels were cut connecting the Bahia Grande Basin, the wetland’s main body of water, with two smaller interior basins, the Laguna Larga and Little Laguna Madre, which restored tidal flow throughout the whole system.

Andy Jones, director of TCF’s Texas office, said it’s gratifying to see how far the Bahia Grande project has come.

“It’s absolutely satisfying to see it, and the rest of work we’ve been accomplishing, and to see all the restoration work,” he said. “The lakes were dry there forever. Fortunately now there’s flow. Now its wildlife haven full of fish and all the birds.”

Blihovde said Fish and Wildlife will work with The Nature Conservancy on fixing up the newly purchased 1,800 acres.

“We will have the ability, partnering with TNC, to conduct restoration activities on that northern section, including removing old levees and dikes, old oil platforms and things like that,” he said.

Meanwhile, the existing pilot channel is already silting in and needs to be cleaned out, widened and stabilized to provide an adequate flow of water, Blihovde said. General Land Office funding that was available dried up. Now the project partners are beating the bushes for other sources of funding, such as money from the BP oil spill settlement, Blihovde said.

“It’s a high priority for many partners down in the Valley,” he said. “There’s a lot of support for it. I’m sure it will be funded. It’s just a matter of when.”

One thing is clear: The Bahia Grande is coming back to life.

“It is well on its way back,” Blihovde said. “Not only is it not a dust bowl, but it is an important estuary for a number of species, including — believe it or not — for sea turtles. The green sea turtles go in and out of that pilot channel and the Bahia Grande and stay for varying lengths of time, because there’s sea grasses that are coming back in the interior of that wetland.”

The wetland also supports shrimp and other invertebrates that redfish, trout, flounder and other fish species depend on, he said.

“It’s a real important nursery for fisheries, and I think it will continue to be really important, and that in turn will make it a very sought after place for folks who want to go fishing and kayaking and other activities,” Blihovde said. “Fish and Wildlife is currently working on a visitors services plan that will take some to complete, but we’re hoping to open Bahia Grande to the public in stages.”

Jeff Francell, director of land protection for TNC’s Texas chapter, said that in addition to the 1,800 acres, TNC purchased 321 acres as a connector between the Laguna Atascosa refuge and the Bahia Grande. RESTORE Act funds from the BP oil disaster paid for all of it, three parcels in all at a cost of $5 million, he said. The land was purchased from descendents of the Garcia family.

“Protecting the land around the Bahia has been a longstanding conservation priority in Texas we wouldn’t have had the funding to do it without the RESTORE funds,” Francell said. “The (oil spill) was a terrible accident, but we have been able to do some good work with it in Texas. The restoration piece of the entire Laguna Madre system benefits the Gulf of Mexico. That’s the justification.”

TNC said the Bahia Grande is among the highest-priority and most biologically rich conservation areas in the state. The wetland supports about 1,200 plant species, more than 530 species of birds, more than 300 North American butterfly species, and 17 threatened of endangered species, according to TNC.

“We’re not done,” Francell said. “We’re still going to be working hard in trying to come up with funding to continue with acquisitions from willing sellers. Hopefully it’s a significant wildlife area and recreational resource for the Valley and its visitors for all time.”

By STEVE CLARK Staff Report


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Walk for Women Breast Cancer Benefit Kicks Off Today

For most involved, it is not just a fundraising effort for those battling breast cancer — it is a coming together of the community.

That’s how Cheryl Hill, the event’s coordinator, describes it.

This weekend will be full of activities, two that raise funds and a third that raises awareness for breast cancer.

“This is a cause that touches just about everybody,” Hill says about breast cancer. “This is a really great gathering of people that make Walk for Women. We are just part of a big community.”

That community comes together in a big way. Over the years, the organization has raised more than $300,000 and has given to more than 60 Valley women and their families.

It also has contributed $50,000 to the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation for mammograms.

Early in its 14-year history, some of the money also went to $14,500 to the Carolyn Fund for prosthesis, Baylor and MD Anderson.

The key to it all, helping those battling breast cancer right here in the Lower Rio Grande Valley area.

Hill says she wants to make sure those fighting breast cancer don’t have to choose between groceries or electricity versus paying a medical deductible.

“When it started, it was a friend of ours who had breast cancer and was in dire financial straights,” Hill said. “We rallied the community and held a fundraiser. That was 14 years ago. This is really a labor of love with a lot of people committed.”

The weekend will open with a casino night, Friday, at Louie’s Backyard. The event includes a live auction with fabulous items.

Then, Saturday, there will be the always-fun fishing tournament. Both of those are fundraising events along with personal donations as well as the sale of merchandise and more.

Sunday will end with the free Walk for Women. That is to honor those fighting the battle and is a remembrance of those who have lost their battle.

Hill, who has been involved with the Walk for Women event for the past eight years, said she expects to raise $60,000 to $70,000 this year.

Proceeds from other events throughout the year also are given to the Walk for Women organization, something Hill said she is extremely proud of and happy about.

“It is so rewarding when we give a check to someone and you can see the load that it lightens for that person,” she said. “That is what makes it all worthwhile.”


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Popular Sandcastle Days marking 30th anniversary on South Padre Island

It was 30 years ago already.

That’s when master sand sculptors Walter McDonald (aka Amazin Walter) and Lucinda Wierenga (aka Sandy Feet) started Sandcastle Days as a way to show off the magical sculpting qualities of SPI sand.

The purpose also was to bring awareness to protecting the coastal shores.

And the event is stronger and bigger than ever.

“This is a week full of fun,” Wierenga says. “I can hardly wait. I look forward to this all year. All these sculptors are my friends. I have competed against them and worked with them. It is a thrill to invite them to my home beach and play in the sand here.”

There was a reason the event was started in October.

“That is a slow time, but it is so beautiful here,” she says. “The weather is great and the water is warm. This draws attention to the wonderful sand for sand castling and the whole concept of unlittering.”

Wierenga says it is key to keep the beaches clean and the sculptors hope their efforts make a difference.

“We find a lot of trash when we are building sand sculptures,” she says. “We are responsible for what we bring to the beach and to put that stuff back or throw it away.”

Over the years, this free event has grown from a local celebration to a qualifying event for the World Championships of Sand Sculpting.

This year’s event boasts two more sculpting teams, live music, art booths and great food. This year, there will be 12 professional teams, that is more than the 10 in previous years. The west coast will be well represented along with teams from Canada and beyond.

It is one of the longest-running festivals of the country for sand sculpting.

They are proud to have been involved in every single one of those 30 years, Wierenga says.

If you miss the event this weekend, Wierenga said, don’t fret.

“If the weather holds out, these sculptures will last as much as weeks after,” Wierenga says. “If they can’t make it for the contest, come on out after. After the event, the crowds have left, so wander through the sculptures like an art gallery.”


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The Cost of Hurricane Prep: Island Awaiting FEMA Reimbursement

The Island dodged a bullet when Hurricane Harvey sidestepped the Valley.

But the storm took a bite out of city finances as Island leaders prepared for the worst.

Now, Island officials are seeking a reimbursement from FEMA.

Recently, city leaders approved a budget item in the amount of $110,097 for expenditures associated with Hurricane Harvey.

City Manager Susan Guthrie said the figure will be submitted to FEMA for potential reimbursement.

The reimbursement request as a county as a whole is about $1.5 million, Guthrie said.

City leaders recalled being reimbursed by FEMA for expenditures after Hurricane Dolly hit the Island in 2008.

“We were not affected by Hurricane Harvey, however, the threat was real,” said Rodrigo Gimenez, Island chief financial officer.

Gimenez reported to the commissioners once the emergency management plan went into effect.

He reported a total of $110,097 was tracked in spending associated with Harvey.

“Some of the expenses are for regular hours for employees,” Gimenez said. “We will have some savings in some of the departments that will offset some of the costs.”

Public safety spent about 335 hours in preventive hours.

Hurricane pay and hours began to be tracked as soon as the emergency command center was opened.

Gimenez said 85 percent of the expenditures went to payroll and 15 percent to other expenditures.

Most of the other main costs went to sand, hauling, food and beverages, minor tools and equipment, fuel, storm sewer cleaning to make sure there was drainage and rental equipment used to face the situation.

“The vast majority of the expenditures were related to public safety, public works and environmental surveying and the shoreline,” Gimenez said.

The hurricane eventually turned and made devastating impact 150 miles north of the Island on the Coastal Bend.


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Training for Whale, Dolphin Rescuers Set

A marine mammal stranding is stressful not just for the animals, but for rescuers, too.

To minimize the effects on all involved, experts on whale and dolphin strandings will host a classroom training session Oct. 7 for 30 volunteers at Isla Blanca Park on South Padre Island.

The location for the training is the former Coastal Studies Lab, which is in the process of changing to the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental and Marine Sciences.

“One year we had three of them, that was a couple years ago,” said Tony Reisinger, Texas AgriLife’s extension agent for coastal and marine resources with Texas Sea Grant. “And then you might go a couple years and not have one — it’s not predictable at all.”

Strandings of whales and dolphins, which can weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds, require a quick response from rescuers, he said Wednesday.

A typical stranding event could involve several dozen responders.

“On average, maybe about 30 people because it’s around-the-clock, and you have to take care of one if it can’t swim by itself,” Reisinger said. “They have to get into wetsuits and walk it around the tanks.

“It’s one of the most strenuous responses I’ve ever been through,” he added. “A lot of people stay up all hours taking care of them and feeding them, and it requires vets from the zoo.”

Heidi Whitehead, state coordinator of the Texas Marine Mammal Stranding Network, will teach handling procedures that comply with the Marine Mammal Protection Act and lecture on species that strand on Texas beaches and bays.

By RICK KELLEY Staff Writer


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