Brannan v. State of Texas

Defending beachfront property rights against “rolling easements”

Cases > Property Rights > Brannan v. State of Texas
Won: The Texas Supreme Court invalidated the local land grab.

After a 1998 tropical storm moved the vegetation line landward of Texas beachfront homes, state officials informed the beachfront homeowners that, based on its policy of considering the public beach to extend inland to the vegetation line (wherever it goes), the homes were encroachments on a public beach and subject to removal for violating the State’s Open Beaches Act. That “rolling easement” policy was invalidated by PLF’s Texas Supreme Court victory in Severance v. Patterson (2012). PLF represented Angela Brannan and other beachfront homeowners in Surfside, Texas, who were subjected to the “rolling easement” and resulting loss of their property by government fiat. The Texas Court of Appeals ruled that the owners could pursue their takings claims as validated by the Severance case. Local counsel took over the case on remand.

Texas statutes provide that private land seaward of a beach’s natural vegetation line is considered part of the public beach. Private property landward of that natural vegetation line was private. When Tropical Storm Frances hit Surfside, Texas in September, 1998, it severely and obviously dislocated the vegetation line landward of homeowner’ houses. The State then claimed a public beach easement existed on the dry sand beach areas where the houses stood. When the owners sued for relief, the State counterclaimed to remove their homes as beach encroachments. The Village of Surfside even disconnected the homeowners’ utilities to advance the public beach easement. In 2007, the trial court rejected the owners’ takings claims and granted the State an injunction to remove the homes without just compensation.

PLF took over representation of the property owners before the Texas Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court. While PLF’s petition on behalf of Brannan and the other owners was pending before the Texas Supreme Court, that court issued its decision in PLF’s Severance v. Patterson case, invalidating the “rolling easement” that Texas land use officials used to deprive owners of their dry sand beachfront property. The Texas Supreme Court then reversed the adverse Court of Appeals decision in this case, and ordered the lower court to reconsider the trial court’s judgments against the property owners in light of Severance. The appeals court vacated the trial court’s judgments and remanded the case to the trial court for it to conduct further argument and fact development based on Severance. That decision eliminated the last Open Beaches Act opinion left in favor of the state but the homeowners continue to fight for their rights in the trial court.

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What’s at stake?

  • States cannot redefine property rights in such a way as to deprive owners of their property without just compensation.

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