Texas Lawmaker Carves Exception Benefiting Own House In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, beachfront homeowners whose property was damaged or destroyed face a special limitation on rebuilding. If the storm eroded the beach, it also may have eroded their free title to the property. Under the state's Open Beaches Act, property owners may not build on a public beach. And when the land moves, so does the public beach. People who buy beachfront property are warned in big letters in purchase and sale documents of the risk they run that the ocean may take back their land. But it's a little different if you're a state legislator. According to the Houston Chronicle story, "Battle for a beach," by Harvey Rice and Matt Stiles, Texas State Representative Wayne Christian, on the last day of this year's legislative session, inserted language about beachfront rebuilding into a broader bill addressing recovery from Hurricane Ike. Christian's provision exempts a stretch of Bolivar Peninsula beach from the restrictions of the Open Beaches Act. Not by coincidence, critics charge, that particular stretch of beach includes the land, and the bare foundation pilings, where Christian's own beachfront second home stood before the storm. Under the Texas Constitution, laws that benefit just one locality are prohibited: All new laws must be written to apply to the whole state. Christian got around that technicality, the Chronicle reports, by not mentioning the Bolivar peninsula by name in his amendment. Instead, he wrote the exemption to apply to houses "on a peninsula in a county with more than 250,000 population and less than 251,000 population." "The only area fitting that description," notes the Chronicle, "is Bolivar."
Houses stand on badly damaged beachfront landin the aftermath of Hurricane Ike in September of last year. Some land may now be legally unbuildable under the Texas Open Beaches Act, because the public beach has encroached onto home sites. (PHOTO BY Jocelyn Augustino, FEMA) Texas Land Commissioner Patterson, whose job includes administering the Open Beaches Act, held a rally and press conference on the Bolivar beach to protest Christian's amendment. Patterson vowed not to enforce the measure if it passed, saying that it's indefensible in court. Reaction in the Texas press has been overwhelmingly negative, as exemplified by editorials in the Austin American-Statesman ("Perry, wave self-serving bill aside"), the Dallas Morning News (letter to the editor, "No exceptions for beach houses," By Ellis Pickett), the Houston Chronicle ("Beach brou-haha boils over," by Lisa Falkenberg), and the Galveston County Daily News ("Governor should veto beach rules," by Heber Taylor). (Nearby Galveston, by the way, which saw considerable beachfront destruction and beach erosion, is not included in Representative Christian's exemption.) Representative Christian, meanwhile, defended his amendment and his stance in an editorial on the Texas Weekly's "Soapbox" page ("Rep. Wayne Christian: It's a Property Rights Thing"). Wrote Christian, "My constituents adamantly believe it is wrong for the 'Big Brother' State to take their private property away from them unnecessarily." Texas Governor Rick Perry, after a series of ambivalent statements, decided finally to allow the bill containing the Christian amendment to go into effect — but without his signature, reports the Houston Chronicle here ("Perry allows exemption to rebuild beach houses," by Peggy Fikac). Vetoing the entire bill would have undone other measures the bill contained, including a provision allowing homeowners to take a "homestead" tax deduction on their state income taxes for two years while their homes are being rebuilt. “I want to protect the rights of property owners while ensuring that the state’s beaches remain open for the public to use and enjoy,” Perry said in a statement about the measure. But the Governor added, "The provision affecting the Texas Open Beaches Act is vague, broad and incomplete, and will likely result in litigation between homeowners and the state." And Land Commissioner Patterson repeated his intention not to enforce the provision allowing Christian (and other Bolivar residents) to rebuild before Patterson has determined where the new "line of vegetation" demarking the public beach now lies, post-Ike — which Patterson said could take 18 months to two years, as dunes and grasses re-establish themselves. Said Patterson, "“It will be the policy of the Texas General Land Office that notwithstanding the Christian amendment, no structure will be rebuilt if it will interfere with the public right to access Texas beaches."