The Party’s Over

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

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