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

For a lot of people, it's a rite of passage on the way to becoming a true Texan.

Kirk Schwartzenburg is 32 now, a salesman for an environmental services firm, but like a lot of people his age, he remembers back in the late 1980s driving with a bunch of buddies down the empty beaches of Galveston's west end. Maybe the Cure was on the cassette player, maybe Townes Van Zandt; but even with the typical high schooler's bombed-out rat trap of a car, cruising down the windswept shore, the Gulf of Mexico on your side, a beer in your hands, you felt pretty damn free.

The whole stretch wasn't open -- every so often cars would be blocked off by a beachfront subdivision -- but you could go for miles and miles.

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.
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.
This ladder qualifies as "public access" to the beach, Lopas says.
Daniel Kramer
This ladder qualifies as "public access" to the beach, Lopas says.

Even the cops were mellow. "I would imagine they knew that not everyone was old enough [to drink], but unless you were really making an ass out of yourself, they left you alone," Schwartzenburg says.

Andrew Johnson, 67, remembers further back, when he could ride unimpeded all the way from the end of the seawall to San Luis Pass, about 20 miles away. "There'd be beer joints on the beach, there'd be parties," he says. "When I was in high school, there'd be these black, segregated clubs down by the beach. They'd let you in if you sat on the side. We just used to love to drive there and listen, the bands were so good."

Especially visitors from out of state -- whether from a landlocked piece of the Midwest or the white-sand beaches of either coast -- would head down to Galveston for the slightly rebellious thrill of driving on the sandy beach beyond the seawall.

You could've been from Minnesota or New Jersey; at that point, Willie Nelson couldn't feel any more Texan than you did. You were Jack Nicholson or Shirley MacLaine, yahooing gleefully in a surf-splashing Corvette in Terms of Endearment.

But nothing good lasts forever. Development came to the west end of Galveston -- despite the fact that the unprotected land sits millimeters above sea level. And it was no longer possible to drive the 20 miles or so down to San Luis Pass.

Subdivisions blocked vehicular beach traffic by putting bollards, or posts, across the sand. It was legal, as long as there were other types of public beach access, but sometimes that alternative access was provided and sometimes it wasn't.

Beer-sipping proto-rebels never really organized to fight the closings, but fishermen grumbled and complained. Shore areas on which they could drive their trucks, loaded with equipment and ready to chase fish, grew smaller and smaller.

Finally, there were only 3.2 miles left, the last patch of land on Galveston where you could truly indulge in the time-honored rite of passage.

Now -- driven either by greedy developers (according to fishermen), or by ecological and safety concerns (according to property owners) -- that last stretch is on the verge of being closed to cars and trucks.

This time the fishermen are fighting.

There's not a lot of middle ground in the debate: "We want this area open and we want it open forever," says fisherman Tim Lopas.

"I would get every car off the beach, period," says ecologist Ted Eubanks.

The fishermen see it as a class war against wealthy beachfront homeowners trying to shut out the public, like so many Malibu millionaires putting up fences. The property owners view it as a fight to save natural beauty from drunken interlopers who crush sand dunes and smash birds with their four-wheelers.

With the last 3.2 miles of the island at stake -- "It's their Alamo," one observer says of the fishermen -- the previously piecemeal fight is coming to a bitter and clear climax.

Tim Lopas came late to the sport of fishing. His mom, a doctor, raised him in a single-parent household. "I didn't spend a whole lot of time outdoors," he says.

Neighbors used to take him sailing occasionally, and when he was 21 they introduced him to fishing. "I had a blast -- I've been hooked ever since. Probably why I'm so addicted to it is that I didn't get a lot of it in my childhood," he says. Two or three times a week he heads to Galveston to wade-fish in the bay or surf-fish by San Luis Pass. The pass is a haven for speckled trout, redfish and flounder.

If the 35-year-old Lopas was a late bloomer as a fisherman, he was even slower to begin his new career as a political activist; as with fishing, though, he's taken to it with a vengeance.

He's not a screamer -- as director of guest services for the swanky Houstonian Hotel, he's learned that quiet accommodation often works best. But for about a year, since he first got serious about fighting the effort to ban vehicles from the pass, he's been spending two or three hours every day trading e-mails, writing letters, making calls and trying to get the word out to other anglers.

He's a smooth and effective advocate; his rhetoric doesn't seem as harsh as it is when he delivers it with his open-faced, eager, friendly style.

"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.

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.

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.)

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."

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."

San Luis Pass, he says, "is one of the last great tidal passes we have, and it's been used and misused, and it's time to bring that to an end."

He says there's been no development so far on the last 3.2 miles of beach near the pass, but ecological damage is "blatant and obvious and undebatable." He adds, "Continuous vehicular traffic and the compaction of sand on the beach makes it difficult for vegetation to get a foothold." A wide array of birds nest on the beach, he says, "and I can tell you that they are directly impacted by 4,000-pound vehicles driving over them."

Even when they aren't ramming heedlessly into nesting birds, cars and trucks still cause damage, ecologists say. Local birder and marine biology expert Jim Stevenson of Galveston Environmental Services says in a 1998 study that a car passing over hard sand may not appear to do significant damage. But "any object which weighs in the tons, driving over delicate invertebrate animals, kills dozens of tiny creatures each trip down the beach," his study reports. "These are the food source of many shorebirds."

A January drive on the beach, however, doesn't bring to mind the crushing of tiny creatures. Instead, the cement-hard beach is desolate, with ghostly tendrils of loose sand blowing across the wide, empty space.

On the bay side of San Luis Pass is a grassy marshland; landward of the vegetation line is considered private property owned by the San Luis Development Corporation. But the marshland is scored with a handful of dirt roads that -- through constant use -- are better maintained than some Hill Country farm roads. At one Times Square-like intersection, four or five roads come together to form a plaza in the grass.

Eubanks says he's studied beach environments across the country. "Texas is unusual because of its Open Beaches Act. I applaud it, but the mistake that is made is people assuming that every Texan that comes to the beach has to have their car with them."

Ah, but isn't that indeed what a great number of Texans assume? "You go to the pocket parks, you go to the pedestrian-only beaches in the summer, and they're empty," says bait shop owner Lisa Martinez. "The only beach that's packed every day of the summer is the last 3.2 miles down here."

She says three quarters of the people who come to her shop are unaware that they soon may not be able to drive on the beach. "The residents of the subdivisions who want the beaches left open don't think anything will happen. They say, 'Dugan's dad tried it ten years ago and he couldn't do it, and there's an Open Beaches Act,' " she says. "And others, I expect in summer when they find it closed it will be the first they know about it."

Lopas hopes to prevent that. "We can always go to court," he says. "We haven't found a lawyer willing to take the case for free, but eventually we'll find that diamond in the rough, someone who fishes down here. I'm just concerned that it will happen too late."

He says he's "read just about every open-beach case there is" and that the fishermen, because of their long use of the beach, will have a strong argument. He also plans to staff booths at local boat shows to educate occasional users of San Luis Pass.

"If ten or 20 or 30 homeowners lose, but the 21 million people of Texas gain the open beaches the law says they should have and that they've always had, then I think that's a good trade-off," he says. On the other hand, he says, "the minute we let one stretch of the last 3.2 miles go, all we're saying is that it's all right to just keep on going, like you have for the last 17 miles of Galveston from the seawall on down. So we want this area open and we want it open forever."

But the tradition that Lopas sees is, to others, just another pastime whose time has come and gone. "The very idea of driving from one end of the island to the other because 'My granddaddy did it'…is ludicrous," homeowner Kay says.

Barr views it as fishermen making an argument for convenience. "They don't want to carry their gear -- they want to drive right up to the beach, or cruise the beach to find the perfect spot where the fish are hitting. But I would argue that you have to look at what's best for the entire island of Galveston."

In many ways this argument about Galveston is not being waged by Galvestonians -- a fact each side is quick to cite. Fishermen come in but don't spend much money here, homeowners argue; homeowners may weekend on the island but spend most of their time in or around Houston, fishermen retort.

Mohn, head of the property owners association, says he's trying to convince at least one spouse from each property-owning family to register as a Galveston voter. With only about 36,000 voters on the island, he says, "your vote would count much more here."

A lot of the folks who took part in the Texas rite of driving on the beach in Galveston don't do it anymore, of course.

"The last time I did it was probably back in the '90s," says Kirk Schwartzenburg, who remembers the high school ritual of days gone by. "You gotta have some pride -- there's a fine line there that happens when you get older. You get a nice enough car and you don't want to risk getting any of that saltwater corrosion."

Eventually, the ability to ride far and wide on the beaches of Galveston will likely pass the way of other such outdated Texan practices, like the liquor store owner's friendly cup of ice for the guy who just bought a small bottle of bourbon for a long drive.

The change will probably end up helping the beaches. But it also will make those beaches just a little less Texan.

By Richard Connelly

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