GALVESTON — The state of Texas didn’t commit an illegal taking of private property by claiming for years that land known locally as Porretto Beach belonged to the public, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
The opinion issued by Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht criticized some of the state’s conduct, however, and may mean the state will have to pay plaintiff attorneys a little more than $19,000 for expenses and violations of procedural rules.
“Though the state’s conduct is troubling, it is not a taking,” Hecht wrote.
The opinion dealt with issues lingering after about 12 years of litigation over who owns what parts of 27 acres of beach between Sixth and 27th streets.
The ownership question is settled as far as the court is concerned. The state owns the “wet” beach — everything seaward of the mean higher high tide line — while Sonya Porretto and her mother, Rosemarie, own the “dry” beach — everything landward of the mean higher high tide line.
The supreme court action, initiated by Rosemarie Porretto and Randy W. Williams, Chapter 7 trustee for the bankruptcy estate of Sonya Porretto, follows a state appeals court decision reversing most judgments issued by a trial court in favor of the family.
A three-judge panel of the First Court of Appeals had ruled the state, not the Porretto family, owns submerged land in front of the seawall.
The family had argued it owned that land, and a jury in Galveston’s 212th District Court had agreed.
The conflict began in 1994 when the land office and the city of Galveston entered into a lease to allow the city to dump sand on the beach between 10th and 61st streets in effort to fight erosion.
That project raised questions about how public money could be used to fight erosion along the stretch the Porrettos claimed to own and charged the public to park on.
The land office at the time said it didn’t recognize any claim of private ownership of land in front of the seawall. The land office has since withdrawn its claim to own the dry land in front of the seawall between Sixth and 27th streets.
In 2001, the Porretto family, which had begun buying parcels of beach in 1959 and had paid taxes on the land for years, began trying to sell the property to hotel and condominium developers.
The family sued in 2002, arguing the state’s claim had clouded its title to the land, helped kill the deals to sell the land and was a taking done in violation of the Texas Constitution.
Porretto Beach owners in 2009 filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy, which protects debtors from creditors as they attempt to reorganize their finances.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Jeff Bohm in 2011 ordered the filing converted to Chapter 7, according to court documents. Chapter 7 bankruptcy typically results in a debtors’ assets being sold off and the money being distributed among creditors.