Line in the Sand

Squeezed by new development on Galveston's west end, fishermen are trying to hang on to an honored Texas tradition: driving on the beach

"We want the last 3.2 miles left open; we want to be able to enjoy it as we have for generations," he says. "We've developed traditions and customs down here, and we don't want someone to dictate or change those customs."

Lopas spent last Labor Day weekend walking the beach handing out flyers -- almost none of the people using the beach, he says, knew that a vehicle ban was under consideration.

He's formed the Texas Open Beach Advocates, which claims 600 members, and he's helped to pack three public hearings conducted by the City of Galveston.

Beach house owner Jerry Mohn says a vehicle ban is the only way to draw families to the beach.
Daniel Kramer
Beach house owner Jerry Mohn says a vehicle ban is the only way to draw families to the beach.
Property owners go to great lengths to ensure privacy.
Daniel Kramer
Property owners go to great lengths to ensure privacy.

Like Lopas, Jerry Mohn hasn't spent his life manning the barricades in political brawls. He built a company called Chem One, a distributor and wholesaler of industrial chemicals.

As his retirement neared, Mohn and his wife built a home in Pirates Beach in 1995. "It was the best decision I ever made," he says. "Galveston is a real paradise, even if it does have a lot of problems."

One of those problems -- storm damage -- sparked Mohn to get active. Tropical Storm Frances hit in 1998, and residents wanted the state to help restore the beach. "There were 30 subdivisions, and we all had severe damage. We decided we would be better off if we acted with one voice instead of 30," he says.

They formed the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association in February 1999, and claim 8,800 property owners as members. Mohn is president, and has a modern politician's easy affability.

The group expanded its mandate from Frances, lobbying with the city for sewer lines and increased police patrols on the often-neglected west end of the island.

And now they've taken on the issue of cars on the beaches. "The fishermen say they've always been allowed to do this, but to that I say, 'Get real and get with it, it's the 21st century,' " he says. "Twenty years ago you could drive west from the seawall and you could have alcohol on the beach, but the city stopped that because families wouldn't come to the beaches. The only way to get families is to not allow cars on the beach."

(Not every west end homeowner is on board with Mohn, of course -- some old-timers who lived happily under governmental indifference don't want sewers, and don't mind cars on the beach.)

There's a third player in all this. Visitors entering Galveston over the San Luis Pass bridge are greeted by little but natural vegetation -- and a sad, weathered pair of signs apparently designed as an entry to "Pointe San Luis." The signs are the only tangible evidence of a proposed huge development that has been stalled for years.

The original developer, U.S. Home Corporation, filed for bankruptcy in 1991, taking with it plans to build 1,500 homes, 2,100 condominiums, a hotel, marina and golf course. The property was sold in lots as part of the bankruptcy, but about ten years ago Patrick Dugan began reassembling it. The Houston real estate developer and executive in his father's oil-and-gas business now owns 1,100 acres at San Luis Pass.

He has proposed creating a 250-acre bird sanctuary at the very tip of the island, to be donated to and maintained by some government entity. He'd also like to sell the rest of the land, and could get a better price if vehicles were banned from the beach.

"As a practical matter, driving on the beach has an impact on the desirability of beachfront lots," says Kathy Thomas Barr, spokeswoman for Dugan's San Luis Development Corporation. "The fishermen say, 'Oh, they just want to get cars off the beach to make the land more salable.' As a Galvestonian who knows that the city needs to have a growing tax base, I say, 'And the problem with that is what?' "

Barr (who is married to Houston Press freelancer Greg Barr) says it's difficult to predict what kind of development might be pursued by whoever buys the property. "You can't make an assumption about what would go on the rest of the land" beyond the sanctuary, she says. "The San Luis Development Corporation hopes that the sanctuary, and the potential for ecotourism, would set the tone for what type of development there would be."

(The company's Web site shows a residential tower and a list that mirrors what U.S. Home was proposing. Barr says not to worry: "That picture is so old, it's antique," she says. "It will never be built. No one's going to build a 15-story concrete monolith right on the beach. And the list is just a list of all the possible things that could be done, to get a potential buyer thinking about how the land could be used.")

The three entities -- fishermen, property owners and the developer -- have been preparing plans and proposals and studies. Because 140 years after Union and Confederate ships fought each other nearby, the second Battle of San Luis Pass is coming to a head.

The fight looms for several reasons, the chief of which is that Galveston has been living on borrowed time when it comes to meeting the state's Open Beaches Act.

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