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

Serious surf-fishermen may carry a lot of gear: a half-dozen poles, a large ice chest, generators to power lights at night, even a Jet Ski or kayak to get their lines way out into the gulf.

They also need mobility, Lopas says. "As development occurs, the access we've had for generations is gone. We'll no longer be able to…drive to our most favored fishing spot on the beach and unload, not have to worry about off-beach parking and our vehicles being broken into," he says, before he begins to warm to his subject. "A lot of fishermen, what they'll do -- I'll drive down the beach, I'll look for mullet flipping, I'll look for shrimp popping, I'll look for slicks forming, I'll look for birds working, okay? Because the signs at the beach, in the water, will tell you where the fish are at…You're able to say, 'That's where the fish are at, let me get out quick and go fish,' and then about 30 minutes later you'll see some birds working a half-mile down, you're going to get in your vehicle, throw your gear in and get down there real quick."

Proponents of a vehicle ban don't see such a bucolic picture, of course. "TOBA [Lopas's group] has tried to frame it as a class issue, as these wealthy beachfront homeowners against fishermen," Barr says. "But the bigger picture is that as growth occurs there is a higher concentration of people using the beach, and having vehicles on the beach might not be the best way to provide access under the [Open Beaches Act]…People could access these areas without worrying about a car barreling down on them when they're out shelling or flying a kite with their five-year-old on the beach."

Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
Courtesy of Ted Eubanks
Preliminary plans would limit beach driving to the western tip of Galveston Island, shown here in an aerial photo (the gulf is to the left).
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.
Daniel Kramer
The beach fight has made a political activist out of fisherman Tim Lopas.

Mohn also raises the specter of kids. "I go on the beach with my grandsons, and they're three, four, five, and there's no way you can hold their hands all the time," he says. "We don't want to fight tanks coming down on us."

Fishermen counter with the fact that there haven't been any car-pedestrian accidents reported on beaches at the pass in the last five years. The other complaints -- public urination, littering, bonfires -- are enforcement issues, they say.

"The city's inability to provide enforcement, or the funds for enforcement, shouldn't dictate our access," Lopas says.

The beach speed limit is ten miles per hour, and while Lopas scoffs at reports from homeowners that drivers rip by at 80, his rebuttal won't warm the heart of any safety nut. "You can't do 80 miles per hour on this beach…," he says. "Sure, you're going to see someone speeding once in a while, and when I'm talking speeding, I'm talking doing 30 or 40 or 50 miles per hour down the beach. You know, you'll see someone driving on the dunes every once in a while." Cops don't see many violations, fishermen and residents say, because they don't occur when police are around. "If someone sees something and reports it, by the time a patrol car gets out there it's over," Barr says.

Galveston, of course, isn't unique when it comes to driving on Texas beaches. But its closeness to Houston and its longtime popularity make it the shoreline with the most vehicle traffic, experts say.

The General Land Office doesn't know exactly how many miles of Texas coastline are open to vehicles. Spokesman Jim Suydam says 17 different jurisdictions file access plans describing their compliance with the Open Beaches Act.

"The local entity will say something like 'Between this road and that road,' or 'Between Point A and Point B there's vehicular access,' but it doesn't say how many miles that means," he says. The GLO is now starting to come up with such a figure, he says.

Fishermen see the San Luis Pass battle as having a far-reaching outcome. "If they close us down here, they'll do it everywhere else sooner or later," Lopas says.

Both sides in the Galveston fight -- people building large homes on the beach and those driving huge trucks on it -- claim to be environmentalists.

"There has never been any evidence that vehicular access causes erosion," TOBA's Web site states. "As for the dune damage, development causes far more damage to dune structures than open access. In fact, if there were more maintained access routes, there would be less likelihood of a vehicle encroaching on the dunes!"

Those hoping to block vehicles have gained the support of the Houston Audubon Society. "San Luis Pass is a unique natural resource and a crown jewel of the Galveston area that needs to be preserved," says Austin attorney Jeff Mundy, the group's president. "At this point it's being wasted and destroyed by a lack of planning. We would like to prohibit vehicular traffic."

The San Luis Development Corporation hired ecologist Ted Eubanks to study the tidal flat -- the low-lying area that can be washed over by high tides -- and prepare its plans for the proposed bird sanctuary. He says any compromise would likely include allowing cars or trucks on the last half-mile of beach, but "as far as I'm concerned," he says, "I would start the discussion with [proposing] there be no cars at all, and let the tidal flat heal."

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