The Party’s Over

August 1976By Comments

You won’t find it in Guinness, but I believe I hold a record of sorts: I grew up in Galveston, two blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, and managed to go seven years−from the fifth grade through high school−without once setting foot on the beach. So maybe I’m the wrong person to be pointing out that what others have called Texas’ finest recreational resource may not be around much longer. Still, a lot of people seem to like it, and it seems a shame that they’ll have to find some place else to go.

Like taxation without representation and the divine right of kings, the problem dates back to mercantile England. The early common law decreed that private property bordering on the sea extended right down to the waterline, including the beach. This rule of law was harmless enough in an age when leisure time was scarce and the beach was used mostly by fishermen drying their nets. But it has unfortunately survived to haunt us in this current era of land developers and subdivisions and condominiums. Despite how crowded the beach may look on a typical summer weekend, every inch of it, right down to the water, is privately owned.

So the beach is private−but it’s also public. That may sound confusing, but it’s the case nevertheless, and once again we have the common law to thank. Over the years, through some obscure legal theories like prescriptive easements and implied dedication, the public has acquired a legal right to use the private beach−at least in Texas. As a result, landowners and the public have been embroiled in a never-ending series of conflicts since development of the Texas coast began in earnest in the late Fifties. Landowners fenced off the beach; the courts made them take the barricades down. Landowners posted signs declaring the beach private property; those too came down. City and county officials sympathetic to large landowners agreed to close portions of the beach to traffic; that ploy was more successful and in portions of the coast has created what amounts to a private beach. Developers and landowners have gone so far as to erect bulkheads and even seawalls on the beach itself; in many cases, these impediments in the public’s path still remain.

Balancing public and private rights to use the beach would be difficult enough if that were the only problem created by development. But the situation is far more serious. The real problem is that no matter what the laws of the State of Texas say the beach itself obeys only the law of nature, and the simple fact is that any development of the shoreline stands a good chance of destroying the beach.

Hard to believe? Take a look at Galveston Island, which once had a broad beach in front of the seawall. Except for the east end of the island−a special case since sand is trapped by the jetties and accretes on the beach−most of Galveston’s beach has vanished. Where did it go? The seawall promotes beach erosion by deflecting wave action downward, tearing up the beach. A seawall may offer more protection against storms than the sand dunes it replaced (though some experts will argue the point), but it can’t possibly replace the dunes’ role in preserving the stability of the beach. Dunes are actually large reservoirs of sand, which are gobbled up by hurricane tides that temporarily erode the beach. In the months after a storm sweeps them out to sea, the sand is gradually re-deposited on the shore, eventually restoring the beach to its former condition. The wind blows the sand into dunes, and the cycle begins anew, awaiting the next storm. If the dunes are removed, there is that much less sand to be re-deposited on the beach after the next hurricane. Look at Galveston’s sad remains for the result.

Dunes are anathema to developers. They block the view of the beach, for one thing. They provide sand for the wind to blow in people’s front yards, for another. And worst of all from the viewpoint of a land developer, they are idle land that simply sits there and brings no return on his investment. They don’t even serve the useful purpose of convincing lending institutions that the landward side is protected against storms; notwithstanding what scientists may say about the dunes, mortgage bankers and insurance companies would much rather see a seawall. Thus, everything works in favor of bulldozing the dunes and erecting a concrete bulkhead or seawall instead. And, if the beach is gone in twenty years, so what? That’s the buyer’s problem: developer will be sunning himself in the Caribbean, while those other folks are wondering what happened to the beach in front of their dream houses. If this scenario sounds farfetched, I recommend a trip to Miami Beach, where many of the hotels have lost their beach entirely and the Atlantic Ocean laps against bulkheads that were installed to facilitate construction close to the shoreline.

The best way to see what’s happening on the Texas coast is not on the beach itself, but from the air, starting above the mud flats near Port Arthur and going all the way to the blue water and white sands of South Padre Island. Along the route lie the Bolivar Peninsula, Galveston Island, a small slice of the Texas mainland near Freeport, Matagorda Peninsula and Matagorda, St. Joseph, Mustang, and Padre islands.  

It is the longest barrier chain in the world, and−for the moment at least−still relatively undeveloped.

Much of the upper Texas coast near the Louisiana border will never be developed; it is low, swampy marshland of little value unless you happen to be a white egret or interested in watching one. The line between sea and land is vague and undefined; there is, in other words, no beach. The sand finally makes its appearance in the middle ofSea Rim State Park−which means that half of the park’s shoreline is mud flats, a fact that has not escaped critics of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Commission, which spent $5.5million to purchase Sea Rim as a recreation site. (See “The Strange Case of the Missing Parks,” TM, November 1975.)

As far down as High Island, at the northeastern edge of Galveston County, there is virtually no sign of development along the narrow beach. Activity picks up along the Bolivar Peninsula, which is dotted with summer homes and fishing settlements like Gilchrist and Crystal Beach, but even here development is markedly different from the huge projects west of Galveston and on Padre Island. Drop down to 500 feet for a closer look (taking time off to reassure the worried air traffic controller from Houston who wants to know why you’ve disappeared from his radar screen), and you can see that these are just camps, four walls and a roof. No high-rise condominiums, no giant subdivisions. Most are well back of the vegetation line and don’t interfere with the dunes in any way.

The Bolivar beach is one of the most attractive−and least used−in Texas. The limited development somehow manages to enhance the beachfront, giving it the appearance of an indigenous coastal community, rather than spoiling the illusion the way the high rises do. It is usually deserted, even on summer weekends, because it is so hard to reach from Houston, requiring a trip around Galveston Bay or a long wait for the ferry. But before you plan to spend the next weekend on the Bolivar Peninsula, be forewarned: it is also the most dangerous beach in Texas. Unsuspecting sunbathers have been killed by cars using the beach as a high-speed racing track. This is a hazard on most beaches in Texas, but Bolivar is particularly dangerous because it is so sparsely used, and 60 mph drivers don’t expect to encounter people lying in the middle of what they consider the road. The obvious solution is to ban traffic from Texas beaches, but whenever officials propose such a solution, it has provoked an outcry from an unexpected source: environmentalists who fear that such an action would be the first step toward shutting down the beach for the benefit of landowners−as indeed it has been on South Padre Island.

Across the Bolivar Roads and the Houston Ship Channel lies Galveston Island. From the air it is clear how foolhardy it was to put a city there, of all places, on a sand bar in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. There is no other major city in the country like it, on an island fronting on the ocean. It is lovely, to be sure, but so obviously vulnerable, and from the air the seawall appears to offer little protection. Indeed, meteorologists have calculated that the so-called 100-year storm−the largest hurricane likely to hit each century or so−would bring 25-foot tides, eight feet above the top of the seawall.

The broad beach I so assiduously avoided as a youth is all but gone. There is little or none in front of the seawall, and even West Beach has eroded between 100 and 200 feet. No one really knows why the beach west of the seawall has eroded so badly in the last fifteen years. Some blame it on Hurricane Carla, which did indeed devour huge chunk of beach in 1961. But earlier hurricanes hit without inflicting permanent damage. Others blame it on the developers who leveled the dunes and replaced them with bulkheads.

There is considerable dispute between the two sides over whether the beach was stable before development, but this much is certain: even if it wasn’t, slow erosion wouldn’t affect the width of the beach or the public’s rights. As the sea nibbled away at the land, the vegetation line would retreat accordingly, and the beach would stay just as broad as before. But once the vegetation line is destroyed and replaced with a man-made barrier like a bulkhead, the beach has no place to retreat. It simply disappears.

Surfside, the Brazoria County beach is a repeat of Galveston, only worse. The erosion is so bad that some homes which were initially built behind the vegetation line (without the benefit of protecting bulkheads) are now in the midst of the beach itself. Irate landowners are not happy to learn that they are perching on top of land the public thinks it has a right to use. (Whether the public casement follows the eroding beach is a complicated legal issue that will undoubtedly end up in the courts, but it is one lawyers for Attorney General John Hill believe they can win. If they do, the public would technically have a legal right to walk through these hapless landowners’ living rooms.) Off to the right is the massive Dow Chemical complex and the old Brazos River channel that was abandoned to Dow. Then comes the new Brazos and a long stretch of beach that looks little different than it did when the Spanish conquistadors first saw it five centuries ago. From the mouth of the Brazos to the northern end of Mustang Island, this 100-plus miles of beach−a third of the Texas coast−is broken by only two small clusters of development. One is at Sargent’s Beach, a few miles southeast of the tiny Matagorda County hamlet of Sargent, an ill-fated development that had the misfortune to locate on the fastest-eroding stretch of beach on the entire Texas coast. Erosion rates there have been measured at up to 25 feet a year, and the first row of houses has water in the yard at high tide. The next sign of human activity is in Matagorda County, at the mouth of the Colorado River. So far behind us are Galveston and Surfside, and so continuous has been the expanse of beach and dunes, that the mind at first registers the cluster of red buildings as an old fort guarding the entrance to the river. But as the airplane nears the site, the images of doughboys scanning the Gulf for U-boats dissolve into the reality of sun decks and swimming pools and shiny new cars that surround a series of new condominiums. They are the first, but many more are planned; the Colorado is close enough to Houston that the area is marked for major development in the near future.

Across the Colorado lies a different world, one that few Texans ever see. The Matagorda Peninsula and the next two harrier islands−Matagorda and St. Joseph−are inaccessible except by boat. From above, the peninsula looks impossibly thin, as though a good high tide would submerge it. Matagorda Island is much broader, partly for geologic reasons and partly because the private owner ( North Texas oilman Toddie Lee Wynne) has been diking and draining the hack sidean operation that has aroused the ire of Land Commissioner Bob Armstrong, who claims that the area is part of the Permanent School Fund and belongs to the school children of Texas. The northern two-thirds of Matagorda is occupied by the remains of an Air Force bombing range used, until the mid-Seventies, as a retreat for military brass. The state would like to get its hands on the federal property−and on the privately owned portion of the island, for that matter−but so far has met resistance from the Department of Interior, which wants the base for birds or people (it can’t decide which). Then state officials hope to create a huge park and hunting area by coaxing Wynne and fellow oilman Perry Bass, who owns St. Joseph, into giving up their island preserves.

Civilization returns at Mustang Island, where Port Aransas sits on the northern tip. The island is marked for heavy development−except for a state park on the southern end−but so far it remains almost as desolate as the two inaccessible islands to the north. Passing Corpus Christi, we see more activity on the north end of Padre Island, where canals honeycomb the Laguna Madre side, and a private seawall borders the Gulf−with all the threats it brings to the stability of the beach−protecting two hotels and two condominiums.

Just like south of Freeport, however, development tails off abruptly as the plane approaches the Padre Island National Seashore. This is another wilderness, much of it accessible only to four-wheel-drive vehicles, which parallels the King Ranch on the mainland to the west. From 7000 feet, the landscape, except for sea oats on the dunes, looks almost lunar−bare of vegetation, the mud looking like a layer of dust, and the occasional depressions resembling craters. After more than 80 miles, the National Seashore ends near Mansfield Pass, which severs Padre to provide Gulf access for the Willacy County town of Port Mansfield.

South Padre looks more like Florida than any other portion of the Texas coast. Its beaches are the best by far in the state. It also has the most leisure-oriented development, though it still can’t compare with Galveston for residential build-up. It is the site of a new town, called South Padre Island, located between two Cameron County parks on a five-mile stretch of beachfront. The town’s beach is closed to traffic, and although the public has a legal right to use it on foot, city fathers have made no effort to provide parking or clearly marked access roads. In effect, the town has a closed beach; a hotel there even went so far not long ago as to advertise its ” Private Gulf-front Beach.” This all may be irrelevant in a few years, since portions of the beach on South Padre Island are eroding at rates in excess of ten feet a year. 

Between Mansfield Pass and the town of South Padre, there is little development−so far. But that’s only because there’s no fresh water source on the island, and developers are having difficulty lining up water rights from the mainland. When they’re successful, South Padre will be well on its way to becoming Texas’ temporary answer to Florida’s Gold Coast.

Is there a solution? Possibly. Most of the Texas coast is still protected by dunes. If development occurs behind the dune line, rather than on top or in front of it, then beach erosion might be stopped and development could still go on. But South Padre is different. In many areas there are no stable dunes, because there’s not enough fresh water to allow vegetation to anchor the sand. There’s not even a vegetation line. No one can say for certain where the beach stops and the upland begins. It is a mass of shifting, blowing sand, and only a seawall can make such a place fit for development. Rules of law are useless in such situations, and all anyone can really do is be thankful that the National seashore has been preserved−and hope that the state can get the Matagorda air base and the two isolated islands. We’ll need them, because the beaches on Galveston and South Padre aren’t going to be around forever.

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