Active: Federal lawsuit filed to stop unconstitutional taking of beachfront properties

As a surfer living on Texas’ Gulf Coast, Charles Sheffield can ride out tough waves and weather rough storms. But as the owner of a half-dozen beachfront rental homes, an unlawful government tsunami threatens to wipe out his property rights, a primary source of income, and his retirement. Merry Porter has also seen many changes during her decades in Surfside, but she has never seen the state take a pen and redraw the public beach boundary onto private land like hers.

The trouble started for Charles and Merry in Surfside Beach, Texas, in early 2021. In January, the General Land Office (GLO) surveyed the beaches in Surfside. A few months later, the GLO issued an order decreeing that “the landward boundary of the public beach” now extends “to a line 200 feet inland” for the next two years. This mean that all land within the new 200-foot public beach area, including private, residentially developed beachfront land, has been suddenly converted into public property.

GLO officials assert that the redrawing of the public beach boundary to the 200-foot line was necessary because officials could not locate the first line of vegetation after storms damaged the beaches in 2020. GLO officials apparently still view the vegetation line as an automatic public beach boundary marker, despite a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court in Severance v. Patterson rejecting this view. Claiming that the GLO could not find the vegetation line at Surfside Beach, GLO officials apparently decided to simply draw a public beach boundary line at 200 feet inland of the sea.

The new 200-foot rule turns all areas located within 200 feet of the sea, including private property, into public property. Indeed, the 200-foot public beach area extends so far inland that it cuts right through, and engulfs, private beachfront homes and other structures. These residential lots have been converted instantly into public areas open for public occupation. The owners are now legally barred from stopping trespassers from hanging around their homes and yards and can no longer build, repair, or use their properties in normal ways—all because GLO officials have moved the public beach inland onto their residential parcels.

With the stroke of a GLO pen that redrew the beach boundary, three beach homes owned by Charles, and one owned by Merry, became part of the public beach in Surfside Beach. Because of the change, Texas law now purportedly allows members of the public to access, use, and occupy Charles’ and Merry’s lots any time of day and night, raising liability fears and dangers for families that rent their beach homes.

To add insult to injury, GLO officials did not provide any prior notice or opportunity for Charles and Merry to object to the placement of the public beach on their residential lands, the entire scheme is contrary to the Texas Supreme Court’s decision in Severance, and state officials have not provided any compensation to Texans, like Charles and Merry, who own property that is damaged and devalued due to the sudden shift in public property boundaries.

Because government cannot arbitrarily redraw public land boundaries onto private property without due process or just compensation, Charles and Merry are fighting back. Represented by PLF free of charge, they have filed a federal lawsuit challenging the Texas GLO order that converts their private beachfront property into public property.

What’s At Stake?

  • The government cannot strip beachfront owners of their right to control and limit public access to their homes and yards simply by declaring the public beach boundary has moved inland so that previously private lots are now public.
  • When the government declares private beachfront property to be open for public use, it must pay the owners just compensation.

Case Timeline

July 12, 2022
June 18, 2021
May 24, 2021