Gulf of Mexico
South Padre Island beachfront park. (Photo by Peter Ravella, CNT).

TX - Coastal Conundrum — Who Would Benefit From Restricting Access To Texas Beaches?

State Senator Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston has proposed ending the public’s right to enjoy the state’s Gulf Coast beaches, and many current and former members of his own party oppose the effort outlined in Senate Bill 434.

Texas, unlike many other coastal states, guaranteed public access to state beaches when it passed the 1959 Texas Open Beaches Act and has a long-held tradition in the form of a common law that provides that state beaches are open to the public.

The highly controversial and unpopular bill, according to Middleton, is simply an effort to make certain that coastal waterfront landowners have the same rights as property owners in other parts of the state.

“Senate Bill 434 makes no changes to restrict the Open Beaches Act, which remains a continuous use easement as always,” Middleton wrote in a statement to The Daily News. “It only changes the presumption if the state claims your beachfront private property as state lands.”

If the bill were to become law, beach-side property owners would be allowed to ban the public from using any access paths — whether roads or footpaths — anywhere on their property along the Gulf Coast.

But many in Galveston disagree with Middleton’s premise. “No matter how many times that’s said, it doesn’t make it so,” said Jackie Cole, former Galveston city councilwoman and member of the beach and dune ad hoc committee. “This will change it. If it wouldn’t, why was it filed?”

What Exactly Does the Bill Do?

SB 434 relates “to the burden of proof in a suit or administrative proceeding to establish that an area is subject to the public beach easement.”

If SB 434 were to become law, not only would it negatively impact Texas beachgoers, it hurts beachfront property owners as well — because public money must be spent for a public purpose — so the state government would then be unable to spend tax dollars on improving property with no public access.

This means that beach refreshing projects, which include beach cleanup and other maintenance would fall on the property owners.

Thus, some property owners see the bill as a threat to Texas’ long-standing law guaranteeing that beaches belong to the public rather than private-property owners.

“People who aren’t familiar with how bills are worded or phrased, when they read this they really don’t see an issue,” said Ellis Pickett, founding chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Texas, Upper Coast Chapter, told the Galveston Daily News.

“It makes it more difficult to file an enforcement lawsuit under the Open Beaches Act. It’s another step in the process that will make it more difficult to remove violations on the coast. Politicians are reluctant to remove them anyway,” Pickett continued.

“In 2009, the Open Beaches Act became part of the Texas Constitution, approved by 75 percent of those voting in a statewide referendum. This bill is a chipping away or watering down of the Open Beaches Act. The wording of the bill is difficult to read, much less fully comprehend,” said Jeff Seinsheimer with the Surfrider Foundation, Galveston chapter.

“Currently, Texans have the right to access the state’s beaches from the mean low tide line to the line of vegetation,” Seinsheimer explained.

“Under the new bill, if a person claims a private property owner or establishment is violating their right and they pursue litigation, the burden of proof would fall on the person making claims against an establishment. Bottom line for me, proving the beach is public should not be our burden,” Sensheimer concluded.

According to the  Texas Natural Resource Code, “It is declared and affirmed to be the public policy of this state that the public, individually and collectively, shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to and from the state-owned beaches bordering on the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico, or if the public has acquired a right of use or easement to or over an area by prescription, dedication, or has retained a right by virtue of continuous right in the public, the public shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to the larger area extending from the line of mean low tide to the line of vegetation bordering on the Gulf of Mexico.”

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