AUSTIN — Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson today welcomed news that the Supreme Court will rehear arguments in a case brought forward by a California resident that some say has gutted the Texas Open Beaches Act.
"This is nothing less than a second chance for the Texas Open Beaches Act," Patterson said. "Public access to the beach is a Texas tradition that predates the Republic. Today's decision by the Court to take another look at its decision in this case is great news."
In 2005, California resident Carole Severance purchased several houses on the beach in Galveston. After Hurricane Rita hit that summer, the General Land Office sent Severance a letter stating her property was on the public and subject to removal under the Open Beaches Act. She was later offered up to $50,000 in public money to move each house off the beach. Instead, Severance sued, claiming the public's right to access the beach violated her constitutional rights.
In November, the Supreme Court issued an opinion in the case that called into question the definition of the public beach easement, a key provision of the Texas Open Beaches Act. The Court ruled there is no longer a public beach easement on West Galveston Island. The opinion threw the Texas tradition of public beach access into legal limbo and caused Patterson to cancel a much-needed $40 million beach renourishment project on West Galveston Island.
The opinion also triggered a robust response from Texans defending the Open Beaches Act. Patterson filed a motion for rehearing and twenty briefs were filed supporting Patterson's motion from a diverse group of private citizens, coastal advocacy groups, chambers of commerce and coastal cities and counties. Just one brief was filed on Severance's behalf.
"I think today's decision clearly shows that the judges on the Supreme Court understand how important the Open Beaches Act is to Texans," Patterson said. "When Texans voted overwhelmingly in 2009 to sanctify the Open Beaches Act in the Constitution, they really meant it."
Patterson also thanked the Court for expediting the decision to rehear the case. "I very much appreciate the Court's swift attention to this," Patterson said. "It's encouraging to think we may have some clarity on whether or not the Open Beaches Act still stands before we get into the thick of the next hurricane season."
Patterson said that's important because the state can't spend money to rebuild beaches the public can't use. On Monday, Larry Laine, chief clerk at the General Land Office, will join Surfside Mayor Larry Davidson to rededicate Surfside Beach, which has been restored to its former glory by the General Land Office. Since the project was done on land that had become submerged after Hurricane Ike, public access was not an issue for Surfside Beach following the Severance opinion, allowing the General Land Office to move forward quickly. The $7 million project protects more than $53 million worth of public infrastructure such as utilities, sewers and roads, as well as private property. "Surfside Beach is a good example of what's at stake here beyond public access," Patterson said.
The Court will hear arguments in the case of Severance versus Patterson at 9 a.m. Tuesday, April 19.