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

The 1959 act makes Texas the only state without private beaches, according to the state's General Land Office. Defining and enforcing what that means is an ongoing process (see "This Sand Is Your Sand," by Brad Tyer, July 13, 2000), but Galveston has been under pressure for almost ten years to file a comprehensive beach-access plan that meets the state law. And now, under the threat of losing beach-replenishment funds, it is finally doing so.

For about 20 years, Galveston had allowed subdivisions to block vehicular traffic from in front of beachfront homes. If that traffic was barred, however, equal and alternative access had to be provided: typically off-beach parking and boardwalks over the dunes.

But the people building the ever-more-elaborate homes weren't too interested in having visitors parading through on the way to the beach. "If you're not home, they'll use your shower facilities," says Franklin Kay, a homeowner in the Dunes of West Beach subdivision. "If there's a house for sale, they think it means free access and they'll park in the driveway. You can watch them go to the bathroom and trash the beach. It's not all people; a lot of them are fine, and it's a joy to watch the children play. But some people do take advantage."

The general rule for meeting the Open Beaches Act is that a parking space is required for every 15 linear feet of beach, so a subdivision 1,500 feet wide would have to provide a 100-vehicle parking area, and an easement from it to the beach.

To do that, assorted anglers say, some parking lots would have to be located on the far side of busy FM 3005, the main thoroughfare that parallels the beach. "It's a joke," says Lisa Martinez, co-owner of the Rusty Hook bait shop. "They say vehicles on the beach are a safety issue, but then they're going to have you running across the highway, carrying your lawn chairs and your coolers and your kids."

The guidelines say no one should have to walk more than a quarter-mile to get to such an easement, so access needs to be provided every half-mile. Sometimes the access is more theoretical than practical -- some subdivisions have tiny "public access" signs that are 40 yards off the main road. In Pirates Beach, storm damage has resulted in "public access" that requires climbing down a rickety ten-foot ladder or crawling through a ten-foot-long, four-foot-diameter tube that is designed to prop up dunes.

The comprehensive plan also has to deal with such issues as whether the city should charge for parking along the seawall, but it is the west end access that's causing the most commotion among those who come to Galveston to fish.

A preliminary proposal calls for bollards to be placed along the last 3.2 miles of beach, allowing some parking and very limited beach driving. More expansive vehicular access would be allowed on the very tip of the island, right at San Luis Pass. Vehicles would be able to drive near the water, but not through the slightly more inland areas of the planned bird sanctuary.

That, says Lopas, would just result in a concentration of fishermen at the most dangerous spot on the beach, the pass itself. Shifting sands and strong, unpredictable currents would be risky for anglers who are not familiar with the pass, he says. "They say, 'We'll always give you the last half-mile'…but people are going to come down here because it's the last place we'll have and your drownings are going to go up," he says. "I can't give you an estimate, but it will be a lot."

The plan has to be approved by the city planning commission and then city council. The state General Land Office then would act on it. A date has yet to be set for the planning commission to vote on a plan, but action is expected in March.

Both sides expect the city to approve a plan that closes off beaches in front of subdivisions, with the vehicle bans being extended as new beachfront development occurs. Eventually that would include beachfront along the last 3.2 miles.

Fishermen say that even if they can avoid a total ban for vehicles, the gradual ban imposed by advancing development would eventually have the same effect: At some point the last 3.2 miles will be closed to them.

At each stage of the approval process -- and perhaps in court thereafter -- the beach-driving debate will continue with seemingly no room for agreement.

Drive the beach with Barr, the representative for the San Luis Development Corporation, and she'll point to a surf-fisherman standing next to his truck, with four or five rods deployed. "Look at that -- you're telling me he couldn't park off-beach and then carry that stuff?" she asks.

Drive the beach an hour or so later with Lopas, and he'll see the same angler. "You mean that guy's supposed to carry all that stuff? You gotta be kidding me," he says. (Driving on an unusually wide wintertime beach, the two also have wildly different ideas of where the high-tide line would reach in the summer, and how much space would therefore be available for pedestrians and vehicles to share.)

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