This Sand is Your Sand

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

Then there's the Galveston County Task Force, pushing ahead with geotubes and breakwater engineering studies--all anathema to GLO regs--because no one has stopped it.

But without an attorney general willing to enforce, the GLO is hog-tied and subject to whatever rock any disgruntled beachgoer cares to throw.

Never mind that Dewhurst is the first commissioner in the history of the office to get any kind of beach money appropriation through the legislature; never mind that he made the referrals required of him by duty and law.

Surfer Ellis Pickett, above, spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce. As a young man, lower left, he 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.
Deron Neblett
Surfer Ellis Pickett, above, spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce. As a young man, lower left, he 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.
Surfer Ellis Pickett spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce.
Deron Neblett
Surfer Ellis Pickett spends his time documenting violations of Texas' Open Beaches Act, a law he says the state is doing too little to enforce.

But if Dewhurst's land office has been overly targeted as a source of beach ills, Dewhurst himself hasn't helped matters, because no one can tell just exactly where he stands. On one hand he referred 107 houses at once to the attorney general, which suggests a certain zealotry. On the other hand he is amenable to compromises such as one-time tax abatements for property owners who voluntarily move their beachfront homes landward and tax deductions for charitable contributions of beachfront property to the state.

He is "frustrated for" and "sensitive to" the people whose houses end up on the beach, but he's sitting on a code with hundreds of years of precedent saying they can't be there.

There are, he thinks, four competitive courses of action.

There is the enforcement of existing law by the attorney general, on the present effectiveness of which Dewhurst carefully avoids comment.

There is "urging the Legislature to look at the possibility of a one-time appropriation in the smallest amount possible, which would solve the problem of homes on beaches" through financial subsidies.

Then there is "the third option, and it's the most difficult technically, and it's the most expensive, to encourage the Legislature to dramatically increase the next biennium's appropriation under the Coastal Erosion Planning and Response Act, in order to virtually rebuild our beaches."

And finally this: "To have the support from not only people living on the coast but throughout the state to urge the Legislature to look at the balance between private property rights and the legal requirement for open access to our beaches."

Dewhurst says that he has found some "sympathy" for this last idea, but also "a concern by some of the coastal legislators to open up the Open Beaches Act to debate, 41 years after it was enacted," and asks a reporter for "any help that you could provide in encouraging people to either contact me or their legislators and let me know what they're thinking in this area."

If Dewhurst is preoccupied with consensus it is likely because he is an elected and potentially electable official, as is Cornyn. If George W. Bush becomes president, Lt. Gov. Rick Perry will ascend the throne, leaving his own seat warm for any number of seekers, which might well include David Dewhurst and John Cornyn.

Jamie Mitchell works for Ralph Nader's Public Citizen office in Austin, but he was the GLO's beach and dune man under Democratic Commissioner Garry Mauro, and he sees where this line of thinking is headed.

"My fear is [that] land commissioner Dewhurst is saying...'I don't agree with the law. I have to do this.' So 103 people become outraged, go to their legislators coming up next spring, and say, 'We need to do something about this Open Beaches Act.' So now they're all organized with money behind them, and he gets off the hook. I'm very scared that they're using this as a pawn to say, 'I'm enforcing the law; the AG isn't. Gee, maybe we need to change the law.'

"Millions of Texans that go to the beach every year, they're not aware of the Open Beaches Act, that houses out on the beach don't belong there. And they're not saying anything, they're not contacting their legislators, they're not contacting the press, they're not contacting the Land Office or the attorney general. If the public knew more, you'd see a backlash."


Approximately 25 percent of homes and other structures within 500 feet of the U.S. coastline and the shorelines of the Great Lakes will fall victim to the effects of erosion within the next 60 years. Especially hard hit will be areas along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coastlines, which are expected to account for 60 percent of nationwide losses. Costs to U.S. homeowners will average more than a half-billion dollars per year."

--Federal Emergency Management Agency press release, June 27

Former state Sen. Babe Schwartz, sitting in his sleek high-rise suite overlooking the state capitol, says he'll be happy to join a backlash.

"I'm gonna bring people up here with babies and bathing suits and fishing rods and talk about how these folks are treated when they try to access the beach through these people's quote-unquote private property."

Schwartz is Galveston-born and -bred, an increasingly occasional septuagenarian surfer, former lifeguard, former legislator, lobbyist, and long-term conscience of the Open Beaches Act, which was passed in 1959.

He is a nemesis of engineered coastal erosion response; his Galveston weekend home is on the bay side; he speaks populist with a fluency granted only to the very rich and the very poor, and he is not very poor.

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