Affirming the private-property rights of shoreline landowners, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Friday that the public’s right of access to state beaches cannot be guaranteed when hurricanes or storms reshape the coast.
The sharply divided ruling will limit the state’s ability to enforce the Open Beaches Act, a 53-year-old law that had been used to force landowners to raze or move structures that intrude on the public right of way because of storm erosion.
Writing for the 5-3 majority, Justice Dale Wainwright said the easement that preserves public access to Gulf of Mexico beaches cannot suddenly jump many feet inland after a storm, encroaching on private property where no easement previously existed.
“On one hand, the public has an important interest in the enjoyment of the public beaches. But on the other hand, the right to exclude others from privately owned realty is among the most valuable and fundamental of rights possessed by private property owners,” Wainwright wrote.
Public land, owned by the state, runs from the high tide mark to the water and is known as the “wet beach.” Friday’s ruling did not change this concept.
Instead, the ruling focused on the “dry beach,” which runs from the high tide mark to the vegetation line and may be privately owned.
Under the Open Beaches Act, the dry beach also is typically subject to an easement that keeps it open to the public.
In its ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that the public beach easement can subtly shift to follow natural patterns of erosion. It cannot, however, jump to encompass previously private property after a storm, the court said.
Remember the Christopher Reeves Superman movie? Lex Luthor buys up a bunch of seemingly worthless land in the middle of the desert in California, then hatches a plot to detonate a nuke in the San Andreas Fault, thus causing a massive earthquake that results in most of the coastline to fall into the ocean and turn his desert wasteland into valuable beachfront property? Basically, on two separate occasions, the Supreme Court of Texas has sided with Lex Luthor. That’s what this comes down to. Forrest Wilder has more.