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Are Texas Beaches Still Public?

Are Texas Beaches Still Public?

On Friday, November 5th, the Texas Supreme court ruled that when storms washes away coastal plants (the line between public and private property), the state can't take over the private beachfront. This issue comes up frequently after hurricanes and tropical storms make landfall.

Up until this ruling, it was understood that Texas beaches belong to all Texans. In a split decision, the court sent answers to three questions asked by the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that, if accepted, could grant superior rights to some beach-front property owners on Galveston’s West End.
However, “This is not a decision that changes anything right now,” Jim Suydam, the Texas General Land Office (GLO)’s public information officer, said. It will depend on the outcome of homeowner, Severance's case.

The Texas GLO has a new website!

related articles:

Texas Open Beaches Act
In Texas, public access to Gulf Coast beaches isn’t just the law, it’s a constitutional right. In fact, walking along the beach in Texas has been a free and unrestricted privilege since Texas was a Republic and the beaches were sometimes the best road between growing trade outposts. The Texas Land Commissioner, by law, protects this public right for all Texans by enforcing the Texas Open Beaches Act.

The General Land Office is taking on the most ambitious beach restoration in Texas history
along Galveston's rapidly eroding West End.

The case is based on her three beachfront homes that shifted onto the public beach easement after hurricane Rita in 2006. The state wanted to condemn and sieze her property. She claims that it violates her constitutional right against unreasonable siezures.

Depending on the outcome, her case will either limit public access to the Gulf of Mexico to a few island parks, or uphold the state’s ability to maintain a public beach easement as erosion moves the coastline inland.
The questions the supreme court was asked included:
  • Does Texas recognize a “rolling” public beach-front access easement ... in favor of the public?
  • If the state does recognize such an easement, is it derived from common law or from a construction of the act?
  • To what extent are Texas landowners entitled to receive compensation for limitations on their property use when such easement rolls onto it?
In a 33-page response, six members of the supreme court held that Texas cannot condemn and take private property that ends up on the public beach because of erosion because it gave up that right when it became a U.S. state. The opinion’s conclusion said: “Land patents from the Republic of Texas in 1840, affirmed by legislation in the new state, conveyed the state’s title in West Galveston Island to private parties and reserved no ownership interests or rights to public use in Galveston’s West Beach.”

Signed by Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, the opinion said: “Although existing public easements ... are dynamic, as natural forces cause the vegetation and the mean high tide lines to move gradually and imperceptibly, these easements do not migrate or roll landward to encumber other parts ... as a result of avulsive events.”  The phrase “avulsive events” is legalese for sudden occurrences, which, in this case, includes severe storms and hurricanes.

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