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.

Rock groins are designed to catch and accrete beach sand. Seawalls deflect amplified waves down and around their edges, scouring the unprotected beach. Any hard structure that can be built or dropped on the beach will, to one extent or another, protect that which it is built or dropped in front of, but it will do so at the expense of any surrounding beach not so armored. That, and access impediment, are why hard structures on the beach are prohibited by the Open Beaches Act.

Dumped Christmas trees are good, though. They collect sand and help build dunes.

Breakwaters, Gibeaut says, very simply protect homes and destroy beaches. You cannot engineer a hard structure, he says, that works any other way.

On its last legs? Surfside's Clark house begs the question: Is this a property rights issue? Or an Open Beaches Act violation?
Deron Neblett
On its last legs? Surfside's Clark house begs the question: Is this a property rights issue? Or an Open Beaches Act violation?
Paddling his wares: Surfside Mayor Larry Davison at his day job.
Deron Neblett
Paddling his wares: Surfside Mayor Larry Davison at his day job.

Gibeaut is familiar with John Arrington's argument that there are plenty of sand sources to renourish Texas beaches, but says Arrington is just wrong.

"We've already picked the low-hanging fruit." There is sand, but unless it happens to be close to where it's needed, transport becomes the money issue, and since beach nourishment needs to be repeated every five years to be effective, you have to justify the economics of a permanent, ongoing multimillion-dollar investment. And when the issue is a few hundred private beach-front houses, you can't.

When the issue is industry, of course, you can. That's why the Corps swooped in and built an eight-mile revetment of granite blocks fronting Sargent's Beach, completed in 1998, to prevent a breach of the intracoastal waterway, whose shipping lanes account for billions of dollars annually. That's why the Galveston seawall and the channel jetties and river dams are there in the first place. They deliver economic benefits that are judged to outweigh their negative environmental impacts.

If you want to save houses, Gibeaut says, build walls.

But if you want to save the public beach, he says, there's really only one thing for it: You have to enforce the Open Beaches Act.

Texas is last in the nation in the amount of public land per capita. We have a whole lot out in Big Bend, but that doesn't do the person in Houston much good. What you do in Houston, you drive an hour to get somewhere and you go to the beach, because it's the last refuge. It's sort of open space and it's relatively cool and there's sand and water. You want to be able to go there with your family and go to any part of it and enjoy it. And if they go down there and the beach is terrible and they've got to hop over septic tanks, they're just going to go somewhere else for their next vacation. Or they'll stay home. That's where the public is really getting a bad deal on this. They go down to Surfside or Bermuda Beach, and it's not a pleasant beach experience. -- Jamie Mitchell, Public Citizen, Austin

Surfside is a friendly, homey community of beach people symbiotic with an itinerate and seasonal tourist population. Staff at Surfside's only chain store, the Stop N Go, unhesitatingly offer to exchange a fountain drink for the bottled variety, if the fountain happens to be spewing salty. Surfers walk into Kitty's Purple Cow cafe shirtless and wet for burgers, are greeted heartily, and the most expensive element of any citizen's wardrobe is unfailingly her sunglasses.

But clinging to the ass end of Texas Highway 332, hammered between the industrial landscape of Freeport and a receding southern exposure of which the Octagon is not likely the final victim, Surfside is subject to nearly every erosion factor imaginable. It has been transformed, essentially, into a barrier island by the presence of the intracoastal waterway to its north. The Corps long ago relocated the mouth of the Brazos five miles downdrift and jettied the Freeport Channel, and front-line property owners continue to employ uncoordinated and stopgap measures -- steel bulkheads, concrete retaining walls, rock piles -- to protect their own hundred feet of investment from the waves.

There are inevitably storms, just making things worse. And it's the destructive storm events, like 1998's Frances, a meteorologically minor tropical storm, that bring matters in Surfside and up and down the Texas coast to a head. That's when entire dune systems get washed out and acres of beach disappear overnight leaving houses crippled on the sand where Ellis Pickett knows and the law says they're no longer allowed to be. That's when the accusations and the resentments and the recriminations and the competing motivations surge, because the law says the houses have to be removed for the public good, but there they stand, and Ellis Pickett is hollering that the state doesn't enforce its own laws, and the owners of the beachfront rent houses invite all interested parties to attempt to pry the homes from twixt their owners' cold, dead fingers, and when these storms surge, there are not, it seems, enough Christmas trees in Surfside to build a dune big enough to hold them.

Longtime local Norma Hamby used to clean beach houses in Surfside for her living, and now she runs a Web site called Give Our Beaches Back ( that parallels Pickett's complaints. When Hamby says to give the beaches back, she means back to the state. Too much local control has equaled too many violations of the Open Beaches Act. Larry Davison and Surfside's City Council -- volunteers all -- are the bad guys, she says. Surfside uses its beach user fees to fund the local police department, not maintain the beach. Even the local beach dune laws are a joke. The Surfriders helped put up that sand fence, but it's behind the front row of houses, and renters have to take sections down to cross the dunes to their temporary homes. The front-row sewer connections had to be a crooked deal somewhere down the line, she figures, but then Hamby is the sort who sees crooked deals lurking behind every bush.

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