The Beach Access and Dune Protection Ad Hoc Committee appointed by the City of Galveston last May held a second public input meeting Thursday to present potential plans in the works for better beach access and to hear public concerns about any proposed changes.
A crowd of about 30 listened as the committee, led by Carol Hollaway, made a presentation of progress made over the past year in twice-a-month meetings, hammering out a vision and specific proposals that reconcile what Hollaway referred to as state mandates that present a “direct conflict” with one another — the Texas Open Beaches Act of 1959 and the Texas Dune Protection Act of 1973, both overseen at the state level by the Texas General Land Office.
Balancing free and open access to all Texas beaches and maintaining a strong, healthy beach and dune system are the joint areas of concern of the committee which, on Thursday, talked about public beach access points along Galveston Island and how to improve them.
A plan for dune protection was presented to the city council in January and is now under review by the land office, said Dustin Henry, the director of the city’s coastal resources division.
Public beach access in Texas was envisioned back in the 1950s as an open highway, wide open to vehicles. The Open Beaches Act allows vehicular restriction on beaches only if municipalities adhere to specific criteria: a public access point every half-mile; at least one parking spot provided to the public for every 15 feet of beach subdivision frontage; and conspicuous signage to signal to the public where they can access the beach.
If those criteria are not met, the land office has the power to unleash vehicles back onto beaches in an unlimited capacity.
Meeting all three criteria while trying to restrict vehicular access to many stretches of beach in Galveston, a goal of the committee, is a delicate balancing act. With severely eroded beaches along most of the east end, keeping the number of cars on the beach down has become a high priority.
The committee presented potential plans for several public access points on the island, none of them formal recommendations at this point, to illustrate some of the ideas they’ve come up with.
Along Galveston Island’s 27 miles of beach exist 41 access points, a low-ball number, the committee emphasized, as many aren’t numbered officially. Numbering them all is one recommendation the committee is considering making.
Access point number 7 at Sunny Beach and 8 Mile Road, a popular area for lines of vehicles to park between two restrictive barriers in the sand, was one case in point. The committee looked at the vehicular access point on the beach and determined that to improve it to meet the goals of access and dune protection, the area needs fewer vehicles on the eroding beach.
The city of Galveston owns a plot of land along 8 Mile Road big enough to turn into a parking lot that would meet state requirements and could conceivably be used for that purpose. The existing vehicular beach access area then could become an Americans with Disabilities Act access point, another statutory requirement beach access planners must meet by law, and a place to launch kayaks, surfboards or other water vessels.
County-owned pocket parks, previously popular public access points with a range of amenities including showers, restrooms and, in at least one case, a restaurant, were another focus of the committee’s possible recommendations.
Public Access point 9, located about mid-island, which coincides with what used to be Pocket Park 2, could once again become a fully functioning beach park with multiple amenities. The spot has been identified by the committee as an under-utilized area with potential to be a hallmark access point if the county and city can figure out how to agree on who holds ultimate responsibility for the park.
As things stand, the county owns the land and the city manages it, but there is disagreement between the two bodies about who, in the case of another natural disaster, should be in charge of using federal funds to restore it — a problem that would have to be ironed out before the committee’s recommendation, if made, is approved and implemented.
Beach walkovers all along west end beaches, connecting neighborhood parking spaces to the beach at public access points, were destroyed in Ike and not rebuilt because it couldn’t be decided who was responsible for paying to rebuild them. In some cases, neighborhoods have taken the initiative to rebuild walkovers to provide access both to their own residents as well as to visitors. The city, post-Ike, discovered it didn’t have legal authority to rebuild them because they exist on private property. The committee recognizes restoring them to proper usability, to connect visitors in cars parked in residential areas to the beach, as a priority.
These are the kinds of issues the committee continues to dissect while the clock is ticking on its assigned task — to come up with recommendations to present to the city council as a cohesive and comprehensive new plan, replacing the existing one approved in 2012. The committee has received an extension until July to finalize its recommendations.
Fixes related to providing conspicuous signage seemed to be the ones that presented the least number of barriers to the committee and would likely be approved easily if finalized, given they are low-cost and also fulfill one of the General Land Office’s requirements. Of particular interest are signs along major thoroughfares directing drivers to public access points, especially those on the east end.
Committee members emphasized that healthy beaches and dune systems benefit residents and are attractive to visitors, but preserving them requires restricting vehicular access.
It’s estimated that island beach visitors will continue to increase by a half-million each year for the foreseeable future, meaning a predicted 7.5 million visitors this year. All of them are required by Texas law to have free and open access to all of the island’s beaches.