The Surfrider Foundation Texas Chapters are a fun-loving bunch, but they are serious about protecting beach access.
Texans of all stripes and political persuasions love their beaches. The Texas Gulf Coast is 367 miles of coastline, much of which is wide sandy beaches and dunes, flanked by warm ocean water. There's so much to enjoy, from water recreation to fishing to wildlife viewing to picnicking (and let's not forget seafood!), providing something for everyone, individuals and families alike. Texans and visitors can come to escape the heat and enjoy a day camped out at the beach because Texas beaches are easily and freely accessible to those traveling to the beach from near and far.
This broad-based affinity for the Texas coast is both substantiated and protected by law, giving Texas some of the strongest protections of public beach access in the country. In 1959, the Texas Open Beaches Act was passed into law. It was enacted to protect the public's right to access and use the state's beaches, ensuring that the beaches remain open and accessible by providing to the public free and unrestricted access to the area between the mean high tide line and the vegetation line. The Texas Open Beaches Act was the first law of its kind in the United States to firmly establish beach access rights. Access to Texas beaches was further solidified into a constitutional right in 2009, when Texas citizens overwhelmingly approved, by over 75%, a ballot proposition to amend the Texas constitution. Article I Section 33 establishes an unrestricted right to use and access public beaches in Texas.
Despite Texans' strong love for their beaches and an equally strong legal basis that protects beach access, this love and legal protection are under constant threat. As the broad sandy beaches become encroached upon by development on one side and the sea on the other, particularly in light of severe storm events and sea level rise, it spurs reactive behaviors from some, favoring protection of landward private development. In a short-sighted attempt to protect or facilitate development, private landowners and local governments pursue actions and policies that infringe upon the public’s rights, such as placing or allowing private structures too close to the public beach, deterring public access, moving public parking, or operating out of compliance with state laws requiring beach access and use plans.
During years that the Texas state legislature is in session, these local efforts to whittle away at beach access are often picked up and incorporated into statewide bills to make wholesale end-runs on state beach access laws. If passed into law, the provisions of these bills would impact beach access across the state. Such bills have taken a variety of forms, from seemingly innocuous efforts to allow the Texas General Land Office to grant partial approval of beach access and use plans (which, effectively, could allow municipalities to be partially non-compliant as well), to outright attempted theft in broad daylight by redefining the public beach area.
Since the time Surfrider Foundation took foot in Texas twenty-five years ago, the Surfrider Foundation Texas Chapters have been mustering all their might to battle legislative, permitting, and legal efforts that threaten the public’s unrestricted rights to the beach. This year’s state legislative session was a doozy, with eight bills filed that would have adversely impacted beach access. Across the span of five months, the chapters led efforts to raise awareness and mobilize Texans, make sure that Texas state legislators were hearing from their constituents, and track bill activity.
The Texas chapter leaders were able to leverage their savvy, experience, and connections to generate a formidable wave of press coverage, including TV coverage and hard-hitting newspaper editorials, reaching Texans across the state with the news that their beach access rights were being threatened. Beach access supporters were provided with easy ways to reach out to state legislators to register their concerns about the bills, leading to thousands of emails and phone calls to these offices. Legislators also heard directly from Surfrider Foundation representatives at the capitol. Allies joined the call to action to add their voices and activate their supporters to engage.
One of the most important aspects of the campaign was to correct the incorrect assumption that private property rights and public access rights have to be at odds as concerned with beach access. In reality, no one benefits if there is no beach left to access, so it’s important for anyone who cares about the beach to realize the value that public funding provides to ensuring that beaches are preserved into the future, and to ensure that public beaches stay public to reap the benefits of this funding.
The outcome of the chapters’ efforts and this huge win means that Texans and visitors who love Texas beaches will continue to be afforded the unrestricted right to use and access…until the next time threats arise. But rest assured that our Texas chapters, along with your support, will be there to convey the message: Don’t Mess with Texas Beaches.