Port Aransas City Councilman Charles Bujan said he is organizing a petition drive that could force a referendum to overturn a recent council action that opened the door to the possibility of allowing food and drink sales on the beach.
On Thursday, July 21, the council voted 4-3 to approve, on a third and final reading, a proposal to alter the city’s Coastal Management Plan (CMP) to give the city the power to later, if desired, create an ordinance to provide for food and drink concessions and beach-related services such as surfing lessons on the shore.
As currently written, the CMP allows the city to have only one vendor, and the document specifies that the business must be the kind that rents items like umbrellas and chairs.
Voting yes were Mayor Keith McMullin and council members John Price, Keith Donley and Steve Lanoux.
Voting no were council members Glenda Balentine, Edwin Myers and Bujan.
The approval vote came despite the fact that council chambers was packed with a grumbling crowd that was mostly and vocally against food and drink sales on the beach.
Sandy Sherrill was among audience members who addressed the council. She said most people come to Port Aransas mainly to enjoy Mustang Island’s natural environment, not especially to buy things, though they also do that.
“Please, please keep our beaches natural,” Sherrill said, prompting loud applause from the rest of the audience.
Bujan said he wants the petition to be worded so that it overturns the council’s vote, preventing the CMP from being changed to allow food and beverage sales on the beach.
To successfully petition for a referendum, a petition committee of at least 10 “qualified voters” first must officially notify the city secretary’s office with an affidavit that the committee is planning to circulate the petition, according to City Secretary Esther Arzola. A qualified voter is one who is registered to vote and is a Port Aransas resident.
Arzola said she and City Attorney Michael Morris will check out the petition’s wording to make sure it passes legal muster before it’s circulated.
From the date that the affi davit is filed, the committee has 60 days to get enough signatures to force a referendum, Arzola said. The affidavit hadn’t yet been filed early Monday, July 25.
The city charter requires that the petition, to be successful, end up with a number of signatures that’s equal to 30 percent or more of the total number of voters who cast ballots in the most recent city council election, Arzola said.
Some 566 voters took part in the May 10 council election, Arzola said. That means the petition would have to get 170 signatures, she said.
If the city secretary’s office confirms that the signatures are those of qualified voters, the city council then will have an opportunity to consider the CMP matter again and possibly vote to undo its previous decision, Arzola said. If the council ends up sticking with its previous decision, plans for a referendum could go forward, she said. The referendum could take place on Tuesday, Nov. 8 – the same day that many other communities hold elections, Arzola said.
Cost of the referendum to Port Aransas could be anywhere from $2,000 to more than $12,000, Arzola said. The exact cost isn’t yet known. The amount will depend on how many other local governments in the Coastal Bend hold elections, Arzola said. Working with Nueces County government, entities within the county split up the costs of holding elections, she said.
Opponents of the CMP change have said that the amendment would open the door to an over-commercialization of the beach. Once the door is opened, opponents argue, it’s likely that this or a future city council will take the next step: Creating a new ordinance that would enable the city to begin actually putting out public requests for proposals from merchants who would like to locate on the beach.
A proposed ordinance like that would have to be approved by votes of the city council at three separate meetings, each of which would allow for public input.
Opponents also have said more vendors on the beach will mean more trash and traffic problems. And they have said that beach merchants will take business away from existing merchants in town.
The Port Aransas Chamber of Commerce-Tourist Bureau hasn’t taken an official position on the beach vending issue.
Opponents also have complained that the language of the CMP change is too vague, potentially allowing a wide variety of unattractive businesses on the beach.
And some say that there’s no point in letting more businesses to set up on the sand because the beach already attracts plenty of visitors.
“ I come from the old school,” 71-year-old Bill Sims told the council. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Proponents of the CMP change have said that food and drink sales could be a nice service for residents and tourists and that it could provide the city with a new revenue stream by charging fees to vendors who are allowed to set up on the beach.
Proponents also have said that the number of vendors could be limited by policy and that city officials could allow only the most attractive businesses to set up shop in the sand.
Proponents of changing the CMP also have said that the move only would provide the city with greater freedom in later determining its own destiny and wouldn’t necessarily mean that the council later would enact an ordinance that would put food and drink sales on the beach.
The change in the CMP language also would allow for “beach-related services” that currently aren’t allowed on the part of the beach controlled by the city. Such services could include surfing lessons or volleyball clinics, but not retail sales of non-food items such as t-shirts, according to Deputy City Manager Dave Parsons.
No one has publicly objected to the idea of allowing for beach-related services. It’s the food-and-beverage CMP language that has set off controversy.
Among the few audience members speaking in favor of changing the CMP was Lester Sumrall, a South Bend, Ind., resident who said he was in Port Aransas on business but plans to visit later, as a tourist, with his family.
“I don’t think having beach vending is necessarily going to make (the beach) trashy and nasty,” Sumrall said.
Also addressing the council was David Bendett, owner of Coffee Waves, who wants to set up a mobile operation on the beach. Bendett proposed that merchants doing business on the beach conduct ongoing litter clean-ups on parts of the beach they “adopt.”
Even if the petition drive isn’t successful, the Texas General Land Office still must approve the CMP change before it is official.
And even if the city decides as soon as it can to enact an ordinance to create a food and beverage vending program, it will be more than a year before anyone might see those kinds of sales on the shore, according to city officials.
But will the current council enact an ordinance to create a food and beverage vending program? Right now, the votes don’t appear to be there. In addition to the votes by Myers, Bujan and Balentine to not change the CMP language, Lanoux and McMullin have said they won’t support such an ordinance.
Lanoux and McMullin said they voted for the CMP amendment because they wanted to give the city flexibility in handling its beach affairs in the future.
Questions? Comments? Contact Dan Parker at (361) 749- 5131 or firstname.lastname@example.org.