The notion of having a private beach is the default claim for many beachfront homeowners on the West End of Galveston. Much to the credit of the West Galveston Island Property Owners Association, you rarely hear it mentioned at its meetings or when testifying on some matter before city council. That’s both prudent and deliberate.
You have to go to homeowner meetings to hear that term. Usually, it’s a reaction to some perceived injustice by the city, the community, the state or by our Park Board of Trustees.
The West End homeowners claim they have a private beach since Carol Severance won her lawsuit at the Texas Supreme Court. Of course, the state of Texas has never said the beach was private and passed clear statutes that require access for the public. The findings apply only to the West End of Galveston and not to the Texas Coast in general.
In fact, I don’t know of any other coastal community to push the Severance finding since the consequences to our West End have been severe. Constantly eroding beaches cannot be repaired with public money, as just one example, like our city-owned beaches have been.
As I’ve come to understand the Severance decision, the beach per se isn’t private. The Supreme Court ruled that every homeowner owning property destroyed in a hurricane continues to own their property, and it cannot be seized by the state without remuneration.
So, the West End beaches aren’t private. They’re constituted by a remarkable number of individual lots remaining under the ownership of the individual who bought them years ago. On parts of the West End, these plots are three rows deep testifying to the damage of our larger storms.
Dr. Craig Brown correctly realized this when he was chairperson of the park board. He required that if the West End were to get park board services, the HOA’s had to produce signed allowances from each of the owners of such plots. At that point, the park board stopped serving the West End because no such approvals could be produced.
What does all this mean? It means almost every dune placed to protect homeowners is most likely piled on private lots absent owner consent. It means that one might check the tax roll to see if taxes have been paid or has the plot reverted to the city or county.
It means that the free use of others property by homeowner association’s for many years has instituted a dune practice that renders the lots public, and it means that if you or I were to be injured on any of this so-called private beach, we could institute a liability suit against the owners or heirs (spoiler: bet it’s not insured).
What it also means is the next time you hear the words private beach, or more importantly, if a West End realtor tries to convince you that the beach is private, know it’s nonsense.