This Sand is Your Sand

On the Texas coast, the only thing eroding faster than the sand is the stateís Open Beaches Act

"If there's debris on the beach," Davison says, "go pick it up."

Neither does he like Surfrider's sensationalism. The rental-home owners in town, Davison says, hate Pickett's guts for posting his photographs on the Surfrider Web site ( All the trash and seepage and riprap make Surfside look like it looks, which is crappy, and that's no good for the beach-house rental business, and what's no good for the beach-house rental business is certainly no good for the village of Surfside, whose permanent population hovers around 600.

What is Ellis Pickett doing, Davison wants to know, to help? Yes, it was Surfrider that last year donated the labor to erect dune-building sand fences on a reconstructed dune line behind Beach Drive's front row of houses, and yes, Surfrider adopted a section of beach in 1998 under Surfside's adopt-a-beach program, but because of Pickett's "attack mentality," Surfside won't support anything Surfrider does anymore. Even the good stuff.

Pickett, in younger days, at the Surfside beach
Deron Neblett
Pickett, in younger days, at the Surfside beach
As a young man, Pickett and other surfers would gather at the Octagon, a misnamed six-sided building in Surfside. Time, wind, and water eventually placed the landmark on the public beach, until it was knocked down and set ablaze by order of the village.
As a young man, Pickett and other surfers would gather at the Octagon, a misnamed six-sided building in Surfside. Time, wind, and water eventually placed the landmark on the public beach, until it was knocked down and set ablaze by order of the village.

Pickett, Davison says, is an extremist, and his harassment of the state agencies responsible for oversight of the Open Beaches Act has cost the Surfriders what credibility they may have once hoped to gain.

Davison, a member in standing of the surfing community, accuses Surfrider, with 40 international chapters and a U.S. membership of 25,000, of myopic special interest, and he is frustrated.

"These guys are concerned with 50 feet of the beach. I've got four miles."

State law prohibits any obstruction, barrier, restraint or interference with the use of the public easement, including the placement of structures seaward of the landward boundary of the easement. Structures erected seaward of the vegetation line...or that become seaward of the vegetation line as a result of natural processes are subject to a lawsuit by the State of Texas to remove the structures.

--Texas Open Beaches Act

Texas has 367 miles of coastline. John Arrington owns a few feet of that in Galveston, and though he's an affable, grandfatherly man who doesn't seem capable of a grudge, he sits heavily on the opposite side of whatever sand fence Ellis Pickett may care to build.

Arrington calls Pickett a "retreatist," a pet dismissal he applies liberally to any person or organization that might study a historically eroding beach line and decide that the best thing to do is move away from it. Twenty-five years as a beachfront property owner have taught him to fight for his land, and 25 years of both gradual and catastrophic erosion have taught him that something needs to be done to protect his house. The confidence of a home builder and an almost touching faith in the limitless grasp of human engineering have convinced him that there's something to be done.

In 1978, then-Attorney General Jim Mattox sued John Arrington for removal of his beach house under the Open Beaches Act, and still it stands. Arrington sued back, arguing that having to remove his house would constitute an unconstitutional "taking" of his property without compensation. The court found otherwise. Arrington argued that the Open Beaches Act "imposed" an easement across his property. The court replied that the "rolling easement" that applied to coastal properties preceded the Open Beaches Act back into common-law days, well before it was specified in Arrington's title deed. Arrington has appealed. The case drags on.

Sitting behind the desk in a cramped add-on command center at his home near Houston's Hobby Airport, Arrington locates documents and reports and surveys and letters organized in boxes and files that loom toward the ceiling.

Here is a wealth of information on all sorts of erosion-response technology deployed around the globe: breakwaters, T-head groins, sand renourishment, etc. Here are 20-year-old studies of possible offshore sand deposits. Here are engineering reports attempting to apply percentages of responsibility to various erosion factors at each and every geological circumstance on the shore.

If you look through all this, Arrington says, and you see what the facts are, you'll see the answer. What you do is this: To protect the houses, you stop erosion. To give the public its beach, you build it a new one.

Arrington is not alone in this conviction. The West Galveston Island Property Owners Association, of which Arrington is a member, has recommended action including more studies to identify sand deposits for beach nourishment, a feasibility study of offshore breakwaters, and placement of dredged channel material on beaches, at a "guesstimation" cost of $735,000, which is just study money, to be paid for, theoretically, by some combination of state and national grants.

The Galveston County Beach Erosion Task Force--a surprisingly fleet committee composed of representatives from the county, the city of Galveston, the Galveston park board of trustees, and the city of Jamaica Beach--has the same horizon in view.

The county's task force representative, Tesa Duffy, says the organization's mission is to "find funding" for solutions to beach erosion and "form coalitions" to make things happen.

The task force has already commissioned and received a plan from the Corpus Christi engineering firm of Shiner, Moseley and Associates. The plan is basically a study of previous studies, but its recommended options, which the task force has submitted to the state for funding consideration, include mostly beach renourishment and offshore breakwaters.

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