This Sand is Your Sand

At the Village of Surfside, it's not just the beaches that are eroding. It's the Open Beaches Act.

The Galveston County Beach Erosion Task Force -- a surprisingly fleet committee composed of representatives from the county, the city of Galveston, the Galveston park board of trustees and the City of Jamaica Beach -- has the same horizon in view.

The county's task force representative, Tesa Duffy, says the organization's mission is to "find funding" for solutions to beach erosion and "form coalitions" to make things happen.

The task force has already commissioned and received a plan from the Corpus Christi engineering firm of Shiner Mosely and Associates. The plan is basically a study of previous studies, but its recommended options, which the task force has submitted to the state for funding consideration, include mostly beach renourishment and offshore breakwaters.

Bulkheads and backhoes maintain an "open" beach in Surfside.
Deron Neblett
Bulkheads and backhoes maintain an "open" beach in Surfside.
Attorney General John Cornyn, author of "a new enforcement policy" for the Open Beaches Act.
Attorney General John Cornyn, author of "a new enforcement policy" for the Open Beaches Act.

Geotubes, huge textile socks pumped full of sand and buried on the beach as stopgap dunes, have already been installed in key locations of Bolivar Peninsula, Pirate's Beach and Treasure Island, despite the fact that they are illegal under Open Beaches Act regulations.

Surfside is too small, too unorganized and too poor to have taken the lead on such projects, but the non-Surfriders in town are eager to follow Galveston's example.

Russell Clinton, whose mother lived on the beach in Surfside, now owns three threatened front-row Surfside houses, and if the battle of ideas is between retreat and beating erosion, he wants to beat erosion. Beach nourishment, breakwaters, geotubes, they all sound good to him. He's in for the long haul, already spent $7,000 post-Frances to connect, through the dunes, to the city sewer line after his septic tanks washed out in the surge, and he thinks someone else -- the state, the feds, somebody -- should pick up the millions of dollars of slack for the rest of it. Especially since Russell Clinton sees himself not as an idiot for buying on the sand, but as a victim.

Clinton is a victim, he says, of state and federal erosion response structures -- jetties, dredgings, river mouth movings -- that amplify erosion of his beach, and so those state and federal organizations should solve Russell Clinton's erosion problems with breakwaters and geotubes to focus the erosion elsewhere.

Ellis Pickett and the Surfriders -- surfers in general -- are a mere nuisance to Clinton, who gave up his longboard when he grew up. They're only interested in their little surfer spot, and what's a grown man doing still surfing with the kids anyway?

"They're a step above bikers. They're definitely not golfers or tennis players. There is a drug infrastructure there. They're not my kind of people. They paint themselves green, but they're only here in the first place because of the jetty."

But the bigger problem is the General Land Office. All Clinton's dream projects funnel, sooner or later, through the GLO, and the GLO has been glacial out of the gate in the race for federal funds, without which there will be only future studies studying this year's studies and fishing for grants to cover the rent on the warehouse it will take to store them all.

The attorney general shall strictly and vigorously enforce the prohibition against encroachments on and interferences with the public beach easement. The attorney general shall develop and publicize an enforcement policy to prevent and remove any encroachments or interferences on the public beach. The land office may assist the attorney general in enforcing this subchapter. -- Texas Natural Resources Code, Subtitle E, Chapter 61, Subchapter B, Sec. 61.011(c) (Open Beaches Act)

The General Land Office is a diaspora of regional outposts webbed to a gray warren of cubicled offices in the Stephen F. Austin building in the state capital. In broad outline, the agency stewards the 3 percent of Texas lands that are public, performs a bureaucratic infinity of associated functions from oil spill response planning to the archiving of 200-year-old land grants, and does so with a statewide staff of just over 500 and commissioners elected to four-year terms who traditionally have viewed the seat as a viable stepping stone toward the governorship, not that it did Garry Mauro any good.

Republican David Dewhurst was elected to the post in November 1998, two months after Tropical Storm Frances washed out septic tanks and undercut foundations from Bryan Beach to Bolivar. Dewhurst's General Land Office, which is charged with oversight of the Open Beaches Act, compiled a list of 107 homes in apparent violation and handed the list to the office of Republican Attorney General John Cornyn, which is charged with enforcing the act, for "appropriate action."

By that time, three of the houses, on Bolivar, had already collapsed and were eventually removed with public money. One, in Galveston, constituted what the attorney general saw as a "substantial" blockage of public access and is presently in litigation. Cornyn took a pass on the remaining 103 houses, 34 of which are in Surfside, and issued a press release explaining his position: "Texas Attorney General John Cornyn today announced a new enforcement policy regarding homes located on Texas beaches as a result of natural erosion. Of the 103 properties attached to this press release, none of them will be removed under the new enforcement policy at this time."

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