Nearly a dozen West End dune reconstruction projects are underway in response to a rule that temporarily allows applicants to bypass regularly required state approval.
Until at least Jan. 3, the city of Galveston can authorize emergency beach front repairs, including for dunes damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The city usually takes applications and the Texas General Land Office makes a final decision, but the agency issued an emergency rule Sept. 5 suspending its own oversight to speed up post-hurricane repairs.
The West End Property Owners Association has encouraged its member organizations to apply for dune repairs, president Jerry Mohn said. Many of those groups likely wouldn’t have applied without the rule change because of the time the land office normally takes to authorize such projects, Mohn said.
Without going through the land office for approval, dune repairs are much easier, he said.
“You don’t have to go through the bureaucracy,” Mohn said.
The emergency rules don’t allow for new dune construction, but allows groups to restore dunes to the state they were in before the hurricane, land office spokeswoman Brittany Eck said.
Cities still have to ensure that applicants adhere to the permitting requirements, Eck said.
“The homeowners must still get the permit through the local entity, but the GLO does not have to review it for approval to be granted,” Eck said in an email. “The rules regulating these improvements are still in place.”
The city of Galveston has approved less than a dozen applicants for dune repairs so far, said Dustin Henry, coastal resource manager for the city.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall Aug. 25 in Rockport, 200 miles south of the county and moved up the coast, dropping more than 40 inches of rain in certain areas. Galveston was largely spared from major destruction during the hurricane, but number of parties on the West End said the dunes in their neighborhoods were almost wiped out by the storm’s runoff and storm surge.
The lack of adequate dune structures has put both public and private structures at risk, they said.
“This is a matter of protecting infrastructure there,” said Chris Robb, president of the Pirates Property Owners Association. “If we don’t do this, we are going to lose roads.”
The Pirates Property Owners Association is one of several groups that has taken advantage of the lapse in state approval. If the state hadn’t put the emergency rules in place, the repairs might not have been approved because the state is “stringent,” Robb said.
“We may have tried, but I’m not sure how successful we would have been,” Robb said.
Dunes in general are closely linked to controversy over public property rights on Texas beaches. While the “wet beach,” or anything seaward of the mean high tide line, demarcates the public area, anything between that and the dunes is usually private property but accessible to the public.
If anyone violates the terms of the emergency rules, such as by moving the dunes, they could be subject to legal action, Eck said.
“The emergency rules allow the permitting process to be expedited, but does not grant exceptions to the compliance with the rules in the statute,” Eck said. “The local government and GLO still have the ability to review activities that may be out of compliance with the statute and pursue enforcement actions after a review of the case.”
Environmentalists also closely monitor the dunes, as they tend to be habitats for certain turtle and bird species on the coast.
Joanie Steinhaus, the Gulf Coast campaign director for the Turtle Island Restoration Network, said she hasn’t worried too much that the bypassing of state approval will cause any problems but that the construction work on the beach is still troubling.
“I want people’s properties to be protected, but as far as the beach and the dune system, there’s regulations in place to protect those structures,” Steinhaus said. “There’s always a concern anytime there’s work done on the beach, that it would harm birds or turtles.”
Hernan Botero, who owns the beach maintenance company Beachside Environmental, is doing several of the dune projects for neighborhood associations and condominiums, including one in front of Riviera Condominiums.
Botero argued that the work is environmentally necessary, especially as he said he has seen tides rise over the years.
“If we get another Harvey or another Ike or something worse, there’s not going to be anything here,” Botero said. “You need those dune systems to be able to protect the buildings.”