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.

At GLO headquarters in Austin the tidal pulls of clashing ideologies hang in the cubicles like a fluorescent fog. Staff won't say it out loud -- and the agency's public information man stands ready to steer conversation away from feelings and back to facts -- but it's clear enough that feelings, at least, are hurt.

By making the referral in the first place, the GLO became the bad cop in the eyes of beachfront homeowners. By declining to "strictly and vigorously" enforce the violations, the attorney general became the good cop.

Ellis Pickett is screaming that the state won't enforce its own laws; Russell Clinton is screaming that the GLO managed to finally pass a beach fund appropriation only last legislative session, and only 15 million seed dollars at that, long after "coastal" cities like Chicago were raking in seven million federal for erosion response; and John Arrington is screaming that there are mounds of sand out there if the GLO would just get off its ass and go get it and dump it on his beach, but the GLO won't, because the GLO is a retreatist agency, and it wants John Arrington's house gone.

GLO Commissioner David Dewhurst wants to know if you want to "reopen debate" on the Open Beaches Act.
GLO Commissioner David Dewhurst wants to know if you want to "reopen debate" on the Open Beaches Act.
Rachel (seated) and Gene Gore, working on the beach.
Deron Neblett
Rachel (seated) and Gene Gore, working on the beach.

Then there's the Galveston County Task Force, pushing ahead with geotubes and breakwater engineering studies -- all anathema to GLO regs -- because no one has stopped them. And Surfside itself, running city sewer lines through the dunes to houses on public easement in violation of its own dune protection act, because it figured it could.

"It is easier to beg forgiveness," one GLO staffer explains, "than to ask permission. The sewer lines are illegal. We are talking to them about that."

But without an attorney general willing to enforce, the GLO is hog-tied and subject to whatever rock any disgruntled beachgoer cares to throw.

Never mind that Dewhurst is the first commissioner in the history of the office to get any kind of beach money appropriation through the legislature, never mind that he made the referrals required of him by duty and law, never mind that Frances compelled his attention while still new in the job and in the middle of the accompanying staff turnover.

But if Dewhurst's land office has been overly targeted as a source of beach ills, Dewhurst himself hasn't helped matters, because no one can tell just exactly where he stands. On one hand he referred 107 houses at once to the attorney general, which suggests a certain zealousness. On the other hand he is on-the-record amenable to compromises like onetime tax abatements for property owners who voluntarily move their beachfront homes landward, and tax deductions for charitable contributions of beachfront property to the state. Which amounts to at least a partial state bailout, and has raised little vocal support among homeowners anyhow.

He is "frustrated for" and "sensitive to" the people whose houses end up on the beach, but he's sitting on a code with hundreds of years of precedent saying they can't be there.

There are, he thinks, four competitive courses of action.

There is the enforcement of existing law by the attorney general, on the present effectiveness of which Dewhurst carefully avoids comment.

There is "urging the legislature to look at the possibility of a onetime appropriation in the smallest amount possible which would solve the problem of homes on beaches" through financial subsidies.

Then there is "the third option, and it's the most difficult technically, and it's the most expensive, to encourage the legislature to dramatically increase the next biennium's appropriation under the Coastal Erosion Planning and Response Act, in order to virtually rebuild our beaches."

And finally this: "To have the support from not only people living on the coast but throughout the state to urge the legislature to look at the balance between private property rights and the legal requirement for open access to our beaches."

Dewhurst says that he has found some "sympathy" for this last idea, but also "a concern by some of the coastal legislators to open up the Open Beaches Act to debate, 41 years after it was enacted," and asks a reporter for "any help that you could provide in encouraging people to either contact me or their legislators and let me know what they're thinking in this area, whether or not they'd be supportive of this."

If Dewhurst is preoccupied with "support," it is because he is an elected and potentially electable official, as is Attorney General John Cornyn. If George W. Bush becomes president, Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry will ascend the ceremonial throne leaving his own seat warm for any number of seekers, which might well include David Dewhurst and John Cornyn. Property owners vote, and electable officials tread carefully around people who vote.

Jamie Mitchell works for Ralph Nader's Public Citizen office in Austin, but he was the GLO's beach and dune man under Garry Mauro, and he sees where this line of thinking is headed.

"My fear is [that] land commissioner Dewhurst is saying -- check his Web site editorials, press releases -- 'I don't agree with the law. I have to do this.' So 103 people become outraged, go to their legislators coming up next spring and say, 'We need to do something about this Open Beaches Act.' So now they're all organized with money behind them and he gets off the hook. I'm very scared that they're using this as a pawn to say … maybe we need to change the law.'

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