This Sand is Your Sand

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

--Jamie Mitchell, Public Citizen, Austin

Surfside is a friendly, homey community of beach people symbiotic with an itinerant and seasonal tourist population. Surfers walk into Kitty's Purple Cow cafe shirtless and wet for burgers and are greeted heartily; the most expensive element of any citizen's wardrobe is unfailingly her sunglasses.

But clinging to the ass end of Texas Highway 332, hammered between the industrial landscape of Freeport and a receding southern exposure of which the Octagon is not likely the final victim, Surfside is subject to nearly every erosion factor imaginable, and front-line property owners continue to employ uncoordinated and stopgap measures--steel bulkheads, concrete retaining walls, rock piles--to protect their own hundred feet of investment from the waves.

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.

There are inevitably storms, just making things worse. And it's the destructive events, like 1998's Frances, a meteorologically minor tropical storm, that bring matters in Surfside and up and down the Texas coast to a head. That's when entire dune systems get washed out and acres of beach disappear overnight, leaving houses crippled on the sand, where the law says they're no longer allowed to be. That's when the accusations and the resentments and the recriminations and the competing motivations surge.

Longtime local Norma Hamby used to clean beach houses in Surfside for her living, and now she runs a Web site called Give Our Beaches Back (ssopenbch.virtualave.net) that parallels Pickett's complaints. When Hamby says to give the beaches back, she means back to the state. Too much local control has equaled too many violations of the Open Beaches Act. Larry Davison and Surfside's City Council--volunteers all--are the bad guys, she says. Surfside uses its beach user fees to fund the local police department, not to maintain the beach. Even the local beach-dune laws are a joke. The Surfriders helped put up that sand fence, but it's behind the front row of houses, and renters have to take sections down to cross the dunes to their temporary homes. The front-row sewer connections had to be a crooked deal somewhere down the line, she figures, but then Hamby is the sort who sees crooked deals lurking behind every bush.

"You know what it's like here? You can buy a vote for a six-pack."

Hamby is tired of the fight and recently moved out of Surfside.

Gene and Rachel Gore are just settling in, still remodeling the stilted house, situated well back from the beach, they bought three years ago.

Gene and Rachel were married in Surfside's surf, Gene makes custom longboards out of a shop on their lot, and both surf before, during, and after lunch.

"It's a multidimensional problem," Gene says, "and nobody wants to take responsibility for it."

Surfside certainly can't take it. Trash pickup in the village is one elderly lady on the city payroll, walking around all day with a 5-gallon bucket.

The GLO can't, not without the attorney general behind it.

Into this void rush homeowners, pushing for breakwaters and geotubes and millions upon millions of dollars' worth of sand. Everyone wants more sand, but the idea of a breakwater is too much for Rachel Gore.

"It's insane. It won't be the ocean anymore. If we wanted to look out there and see concrete, we'd move to Houston."

If anyone tries to build a breakwater, Gene says, he'll drive the class-action lawsuit to stop it.

"If I was on the sand, I wouldn't want to lose my house, but that beach is there for so many more people. We would remove our house and leave. It's the only ethical thing to do."

That's not what the owners of the Clark house, which has been straddling the public beach just north of the Freeport jetty for some 20 years, chose to do.

When Ellis Pickett's tour reaches the Clark house, the camera comes out again. The house is abandoned, windows boarded up, badly weathered, but the door flaps open at the top of a long stair. Kids run around the house and rest in its shade. That it has outlasted the Octagon, despite being farther out, is just another mystery, but whatever combination of breakwaters and beach nourishment might conceivably save it won't arrive in time.

"I was a senator 20 years ago," says Pickett fan Babe Schwartz. "I used to have to go to Surfside and meet with those people. And I told them, I said, 'What do you goddamn people think is going to happen? Who is going to come down here and save you at the expense of the folks paying sales taxes on their kids' school clothes in Freeport? The guy who works at Dow?' But I know as sure as I'm sitting here that these people got a death penalty on their structures, and all I got to do is wait for Mother Nature."

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