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Limited Construction for Isla Blanca Park

Protesters cornered officials to limit construction after deal to allow private development on Isla Blanca Park was already signed. County judge says new contract that hasn’t been unveiled should calm outcry.

The genius, Barry Keenan, is the youngest person ever to hold a seat on the Los Angeles Stock Exchange.
He’s less lucky at real estate,
however, and had just lost big bucks.
Shifting financial gears, he decided that kidnapping would be a good way to get them back.
He picked Frank Sinatra, Jr., the 19-year-old son of Ol’ Blue Eyes. It’s 1963 and the story is true.
One film critic called Stealing Sinatra - the movie based on Keenan’s kidnapping - a study of a “domino effect of bad choices that break down into hilarious chaos.”
Did you miss this recent not-so-classic? Don’t worry. If you live in South Texas, you might unwillingly have a front row ticket for the sequel.

Forty three years after he left a night club full of people clutching Frankie Jr. tickets and many years after completing four and a half years of his original 40 year sentence for the crime; three years after partners in a failed multi-million dollar casino project in Biloxi, Missouri, were indicted, Barry Keenan has brought his latest development plan to South Texas. Last year Cameron County signed a lease agreement with the Keenan-backed Laguna Madre Enhancement group to open Isla Blanca County Park to private development. As originally proposed, the plan made room for a new marina, condos, a casino, an aquarium and an IMAX theatre. The 592-lot RV park that has forever been the Valley’s number one low-rent seaside campsite and summer vacation destination was not on the blueprint. Neither was the Boy Scout camp at Dolphin Cove. Children’s Beach, a sandy cove where generations have taught their children to swim while watching dolphins surface was gone, too. In its place, a multi-million dollar, lumbering aquarium, where children would have the privilege of travelling indoors to see the outdoors, while the outdoors would no longer be accessible.
It wasn’t until March of this year, however, that the public seemed to take notice. Though Cameron County commissioners had discussed the development dozens of times in open session, and had dutifully published minutes of all their executive sessions, the public never keyed in on the plans. Part of the problem might have been indirect language that was used to announce the commission’s intent.

In the first commissioners’ court listing of the project in June 2004, the meeting agenda described the Laguna Madre Enhancement Group’s plans to lease Isla Blanca Park as a “concession agreement.” Now when you think about a beach and a concessions agreement, nachos, hot dogs, maybe even fish tacos or ice-cream shakes might pop to mind. It’s safe to say it probably wasn’t obvious to anyone who might have been concerned that the county was in the process of signing a lease that would significantly alter a public park that sees nearly a million visitors a year.
But then something happened. Reporters for the Harlingen and Brownsville newspapers covered the emerging deal. Doyle Wells was interviewed twice by talk show host Davis Rankin on KURV 710 AM. County Judge Gilberto Hinojosa then made numerous appearances before local chambers of commerce to explain the county’s vision for the Isla Blanca area.
Alarmed by fears of privately controlled beaches and visions of her kids playing in the shadow of a casino, soon-to-be mother of four, Faith Ballesteros and 52-year-old Delton Lee started a local chapter of the Surfriders Association, a national group dedicated to preserving the nation’s beaches and ensuring public access to them. Their first guest at their first meeting was Cameron County Judge Gilbert Hinojosa.
It was just the first of several meetings Hinojosa would attend to try to gauge public response to the master plan, a move he made only after the plan had already been signed into effect the previous year. People were not happy with the belated discovery that 165 acres - the best chunk of real estate on the entire island - could soon be shut off from the public. It’s the one spot where fishermen, surfers and beachcombers can simultaneously take in a view of the jetty and ocean-going vessels. And The Intracoastal Waterway cuts right by Isla Blanca, where dolphins feed and play, sometimes racing boats and jumping through the air out in front of them.
On Isla Blanca’s Gulf shore are the best surf breaks between Texas and Florida.
The park is such an anchored, historic part of so many South Texans lives that most probably assumed it would forever remain in the public trust. In fact it was given to Cameron County by the Brownsville Navigation District in 1950 with the stipulation that the land be used for a public park. Unfortunately, no penalties were written into the deed that would prohibit using the land for private interest.
By the time outcry started, it was too late. Development was on its way.

Many are disturbed by conflicting comments issued by the developers and the county about the fate of the RV Park, the contract’s vagueness on that particular subject, and its general open-ended nature (e.g., “Tenant shall have the right to construct operate and maintain such additional food, beverage, hotel/entertainment facilities, offices, tourism related businesses, marina and marina-related facilities as it deems appropriate in its business judgment.”)
That’s pretty broad language, which allows the planning and construction of multiple projects, including a high-rise casino.

“The judge is an intelligent and competent man and it’s beyond me why he signed an agreement to turn the park over to the developer to do what he pleases,” said Rob Piirainen, a concerned resident whose opinions on the lease are posted on www.saveislablanca.com.
No matter that the proposed development would swell the county parks department’s annual budget from $3 million to $8 million, pummeling criticism and impassioned letters to the editor have taken their toll.
In April, Emma Perez Trevino reported for the Brownsville Herald that 6.5 acres in the plan weren’t owned by the county, but rather by the Brownsville Navigation District. It wasn’t long after that before Hinojosa regretted having signed the contract.
On May 18 Herald reporter Ryan Henry wrote that Hinojosa said the contract “ ... was not a good deal. It needs to be reworked, and I have basically told them that I will not allow them to do any of the things they have suggested.”
But the judge’s assurances - and attempts at damage control by Laguna Madre Enhancement owner Doyle Wells and Barry Keenan himself - have not satisfied many.
Alarmed that the county is still bound by a legal contract that allows the tenant to do virtually anything they want (one local attorney who reviewed it called it “the most tenant-friendly contract I’ve ever seen in my life”), Ballesteros and her fellow Surfriders staged the first Save Isla Blanca Park fund raiser last weekend at Dolphin Cove. Three bands played. Hundreds of people attended. More than $1200 was raised to pay for a billboard to help save Isla Blanca.

In the meantime, Doyle Wells and the County seem to be conceding an agreement.
“They’re getting geared up for a fight they’ve already won” is how Cameron County Administrative Assistant Remi Garza describes it.
In his mind, a recently renegotiated contract between the county and Laguna Madre Enhancement (it’s reportedly under review by lawyers prior to public release) settles the issues that stirred up so much concern. The marina, Garza says, is out. So are the condos (although 23-story hotels are in). And the RV park is back.
Under this new agreement “every aspect of the project is ultimately under control of and subject to the desires of the County,” Doyle Wells said when interviewed by The Paper.
But the Surfriders probably shouldn’t change the wording of their billboard yet to Isla Blanca Park Saved. As long as the lease agreement with the developers exists, there’s reason to be uneasy over the fate of one of the county’s most precious spaces.
“I know people who own RV’s just so they can camp at Isla Blanca one week out of the year,” says Kelly Leonard, a school teacher in McAllen who was alarmed to learn of the still-potential changes. And should the Texas Legislature legalize casino gambling - as some feel is inevitable - you can count on at least one casino to block your ocean view (though Keenan, as a convicted felon, won’t be the owner).
It may be premature to celebrate, but it’s not too soon to acknowledge how a few plucky islanders have so far stalled a “domino effect of bad choices” that might have resulted in some local beach-side chaos that probably wouldn’t have qualified as “hilarious” to anyone at all.