This Sand is Your Sand

On the Texas coast, the only thing eroding faster than the sand is the state’s Open Beaches Act

Geotubes, huge textile socks pumped full of sand and buried on the beach as stopgap dunes, have already been installed in key locations of Bolivar Peninsula, Pirate's Beach, and Treasure Island, despite the fact that they are illegal under Open Beaches Act regulations.

Surfside is too small, too unorganized, and too poor to have taken the lead on such projects, but the non-Surfriders in town are eager to follow Galveston's example.

Russell Clinton, whose mother lived on the beach in Surfside, now owns three threatened front-row Surfside houses, and if the battle of ideas is between retreat and beating erosion, he wants to beat erosion. Beach nourishment, breakwaters, geotubes--they all sound good to him. He's in for the long haul, having already spent $7,000 post-Frances to connect, through the dunes, to the city sewer line after his septic tanks washed out in the surge, and he thinks someone else--the state, the feds, somebody--should pick up the millions of dollars of slack for the rest of it, especially since Russell Clinton sees himself not as an idiot for buying on the sand, but as a victim.

Galveston beachside homeowner John Arrington says the way to fix Texas beaches is to bring in more sand, not move houses—particulary not his.
Galveston beachside homeowner John Arrington says the way to fix Texas beaches is to bring in more sand, not move houses—particulary not his.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has a new strategy for enforcing the Open Beaches Act: don't.
Texas Attorney General John Cornyn has a new strategy for enforcing the Open Beaches Act: don't.

Clinton is a victim, he says, of state and federal erosion-response structures--jetties, dredgings, river-mouth movings--that amplify erosion of his beach, and so those state and federal organizations should solve Russell Clinton's erosion problems with breakwaters and geotubes to focus the erosion elsewhere.

Ellis Pickett and the Surfriders--surfers in general--are a mere nuisance to Clinton, who gave up his longboard when he grew up. They're interested only in their little surfer spot, and what's a grown man doing still surfing with the kids anyway?

"They're a step above bikers," he says. "They're definitely not golfers or tennis players. There is a drug infrastructure there. They're not my kind of people. "

But the bigger problem is the General Land Office. All Clinton's dream projects funnel, sooner or later, through the GLO, and the GLO has been glacial out of the gate in the race for federal funds, without which there will be only future studies studying this year's studies and fishing for grants to cover the rent on the warehouse it will take to store them all.

The attorney general shall strictly and vigorously enforce the prohibition against encroachments on and interferences with the public beach easement. The attorney general shall develop and publicize an enforcement policy to prevent and remove any encroachments or interferences on the public beach. The land office may assist the attorney general in enforcing this subchapter.

--Texas Open Beaches Act

The General Land Office is a diaspora of regional outposts webbed to a gray warren of cubicled offices in the Stephen F. Austin building in the state capital. In broad outline, the agency stewards the 3 percent of Texas lands that are public and performs a bureaucratic infinity of associated functions, from oil-spill response planning to the archiving of 200-year-old land grants. It does so with a statewide staff of just more than 500 and a commissioner elected to a four-year term--commissioners who traditionally have viewed the seat as a viable stepping stone toward the governorship.

Republican David Dewhurst was elected to the post in November 1998, two months after Tropical Storm Frances washed out septic tanks and undercut foundations from Bryan Beach to Bolivar. Dewhurst's General Land Office, which is charged with oversight of the Open Beaches Act, compiled a list of 107 homes in apparent violation and handed the list to the office of Republican Attorney General John Cornyn, which is charged with enforcing the act.

By that time, three of the houses had collapsed and were eventually removed with public money. One, in Galveston, constituted what the attorney general saw as a "substantial" blockage of public access and is presently in litigation. Cornyn took a pass on the remaining 103 houses, 34 of which are in Surfside, and issued a press release explaining his position: "Texas Attorney General John Cornyn today announced a new enforcement policy regarding homes located on Texas beaches as a result of natural erosion. Of the 103 properties attached to this press release, none of them will be removed under the new enforcement policy at this time."

At GLO headquarters in Austin, the tidal pulls of clashing ideologies hang in the cubicles like a fluorescent fog. Staff members won't say it out loud--and the agency's public-information man stands ready to steer conversation away from feelings and back to facts--but it's clear enough that feelings, at least, are hurt.

By making the referral in the first place, the GLO became the bad cop in the eyes of beachfront homeowners. By declining to "strictly and vigorously" enforce the violations, the attorney general became the good cop.

Ellis Pickett is screaming that the state won't enforce its own laws. Russell Clinton is screaming that the GLO managed to finally pass a beach fund appropriation only last legislative session, and only 15 million seed dollars at that, long after "coastal" cities like Chicago were raking in millions of federal dollars for erosion response. And John Arrington is screaming that there are mounds of sand out there if the GLO would just get off its ass and go get it and dump it on his beach, but the GLO won't, because the GLO is a retreatist agency, and it wants John Arrington's house gone.

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