Corpus Christi Caller Times

"Retreat to Keep Island Neat"

Episcopal site is seen as 'model' for region

The architects are hoping no one will notice.

Construction will start this summer on a Mustang Island religious retreat center designed to have a minimal impact on the surrounding environment. County commissioners Wednesday approved permits for the first phase of construction, which will include housing for 48 people, an activities space, dining and kitchen areas, and a swimming pool.

Architect Elizabeth Chu Richter said people concerned about environmental impact will have to look hard to spot the Mustang Island Episcopal Adult Conference Center and Youth Ecology Camp. About 94 percent of the 23.5-acre property will remain undeveloped, Richter said. "It's a very, very sensitive area ecologically," Richter said. "We were trying to leave a light footprint. You don't really sense the division between the environment and the buildings. It's still all very natural."

On Wednesday, commissioners also approved a 10-year master plan for the retreat facility, making an exception to the county's beach management plan that limits projects to a three-year horizon. The special court order will now go to the Texas General Land Office for approval. The retreat site is 10 miles south of Port Aransas and was donated to the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.

Plans include an open-air chapel nearest to the beach and a boardwalk system to let visitors move around the property and over the sand dunes and vegetation. Parking areas underneath the buildings are designed like a grid to allow sand movement and water drainage.

"We think this is the model for all future projects out there," said Ray Allen, a member of the Nueces County Beach Management Committee. "This is the way to go."

Bishop James Folts said the center will eventually have room for 120 adults and 50 children. The first phase should open in a year and a half, he said. "We made some very specific requests," Folts said. "This whole project had to intensely environmentally sensitive. If you look at those plans and the other developments they have on the island, there is a striking difference. The other developments possess the land. This development kind of rides the land like a ship on the sea."

The design garnered national attention last year at a symposium on the environment sponsored by the Department of Energy, the United States Green Building Council and the American Institute of Architects. The Rev. Gary Lillibridge, pastor of St. David's Episcopal Church in San Antonio and a former executive director of camps and conferences for the diocese, said the church wanted to build a retreat center that wasn't intrusive.

"We hope it will be a place where both adults and children will be able to come and not just enjoy the beach, but get spiritual renewal," Lillibridge said. "We're going to open it to the churches, Episcopal mostly, but others also if they want to come there."