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Groups rally to guarantee public access to Texas coast

November 3, 2009

photoDaily Texan
Alex Geiser

Honks from cars and chants from people with Environment Texas and other organizations rang out in front of the state Capitol on Monday morning.

“Our beaches are so fine, let’s all vote for Prop 9,” the swimsuit-clad demonstrators chanted in a last-minute effort to promote a beach-front access amendment that will appear alongside 11 others on today’s ballot.

The proposition would add an amendment to the Texas Constitution guaranteeing public access to beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. The amendment is designed to strengthen the Open Beaches Act of 1959, which states that the land between the water and natural vegetation lies within the public domain.

Robin Schneider, the executive director of Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the amendment would guard against wealthy individuals buying up and blocking access to coastal land.

Problems arise when the shoreline creeps further up the beaches by natural causes, like hurricanes. As the water rises, the line of natural vegetation pushes back to a point where private property sometimes enters the public domain.

Landowners with property bordering natural vegetation on the coast are warned before purchase of potential economic loss should the shoreline rise. The state can sue landowners to re-appropriate the shoreline property if any of it enters the public domain and dwellings are not relocated.

State Rep. Mike Hamilton, R-Mauriceville, added an amendment to a homestead exemption bill related to Hurricane Ike during the summer’s special legislative session that enabled property owners to rebuild on the Bolivar Peninsula as long as the construction stays behind the vegetation line. But Schneider said the amendment violated the spirit of the Open Beaches Act.

“If land disappears because of erosion, they do not have indefinite right to it if it’s in the public domain,” Schneider said. “Open beaches belong to the public.”

State Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, owned a house on the Texas coast that was destroyed by hurricanes last year and said he wants to rebuild. His property, however, has now become part of the public domain because of the erosion of the shoreline. Christian, who opposes the proposition, said he supports open access to public beaches, but thinks that the language of the amendment is too broad.

“Placing this amendment in the constitution will provide the opportunity for the government to use a well-intentioned law to needlessly seize property and will close the door to further discussion of this important topic,” Christian said.

A. R. “Babe” Schwartz, a former state senator who helped pass the Open Beaches Act, said Hamilton’s amendment that allows people to rebuild on public property is unconstitutional and thus should not stand. Schwartz said there is confusion concerning whether people can rebuild on their land after hurricanes have pushed them into public land.

“It has been a constant issue,” he said. “They think they can [rebuild], but they cannot.”


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