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Texas approves land-swapping deal with SpaceX as company hopes to expand rocket-launch operations

By VALERIE GONZALEZ, Associated Press
Published: March 6, 2024, 3:35pm

MCALLEN, TX (AP) — SpaceX would acquire public land in Texas to expand its rocket-launch facilities under a tentative deal that is moving forward after months of opposition from nearby residents and officials near the U.S.-Mexico border.

A tentative land-swapping deal moved forward this week when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously voted in favor of the deal to swap 43 noncontiguous acres from Boca Chica State Park with SpaceX, which would then give the state 477 acres about 10 miles south of the park near Brownsville, Texas.

Some of the 43 contested acres are landlocked with no public access but with protected plant and animal species. Although SpaceX is proposing swapping the public land for 477 acres, it has not yet purchased that property. None of the land in the deal has beach access, but the 43 acres sit near protected federal land and lagoons that stretch along the coast.

“Through this transaction we are guaranteeing the conservation of 477 acres, which would otherwise potentially be developed into condominiums or strip centers,” Jeffery D. Hildebrand, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission chairman appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott, said at the meeting’s close.

The deal started in 2019 as a conversation between the state and SpaceX. But it was finally worked out in 2023, said David Yoskowitz, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s executive director.

People sent over 2,300 letters to the department to voice their opinion. Although the majority, 60%, were opposed, the department recommended the state vote in favor of the deal, which had the support from the Democratic state senator for the area, the comptroller and the Texas General Land Office commissioner.

Dozens of people traveled up to the Monday’s meeting in the state capital of Austin to voice their support or discontent with the plan.

Cyrus Reed, the legislative and conservation director with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club, was among those opposing the deal.

“We think, as an alternative, if we think the 477 acres are valuable, go and buy it. We the voters of Texas have given you money to purchase valuable land,” Reed said, referring to the state’s Centennial Parks Conservation Fund.

In November, voters approved the establishment of the fund, creating the largest endowment for park development in Texas history.

“And remember the precedent you’re setting,” Reed said. “If you approve this deal, that means every industrialist, everyone who has an interest in expanding is going to look at this and say, ‘Where can I go find some land that I can exchange to continue to pollute and hurt other land?’ So, that’s not a net benefit for Texas.”

SpaceX Starbase general manager Kathryn Lueders attended the meeting and said she has seen wildlife coexist with spacecraft in Florida when she worked as a program manager for NASA.

“At the same time, it further expands on a critical refuge and allows Texans to receive a coveted property which has been sought by multiple state and federal agencies for conservation efforts for over a decade,” she said.

An environmental assessment, public comment period and other consultations could mean the disposition of the property could take up to 18 months to complete, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s general counsel.