Galveston, Texas; May 24, 2021: Beachfront property owners filed a lawsuit today challenging a General Land Office order that unlawfully turns their private property into a public beach for two years. After Hurricane Laura and Tropical Storm Beta altered the beachfront in the Galveston area last year, GLO Commissioner George P. Bush issued an order on March 29 declaring that all land located 200 feet from the mean low tide line is now a public beach. However, the new 200-foot public beach area extends into residential beachfront property, stripping many coastal property owners of their established property rights.
By redrawing the lines of public beaches onto private land, Texas has taken the private property of coastal landowners like Charles Sheffield and Merry Porter, both plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed today. Sheffield and Porter separately own several beachfront homes in Surfside Beach, which they use for rental income. The newly redrawn public beach area covers their property, placing the public beach on and around their beachfront homes and private property.
According to the GLO, the placement of public beach on residential land triggers the public’s right to access and use of that land any time of day or night under the Texas Open Beaches Act. That means Sheffield and Porter cannot exclude trespassers from around their homes, and it creates related liability concerns, will result in substantial restrictions on their right to repair their homes, and does damage to their property values.
“The state can’t suddenly just redraw public beach property boundaries so as to convert a private residential lot into an area open for public use,” said J. David Breemer, a senior attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the lawsuit. “This illegal and unconstitutional move offends the rights of Texans like Sheffield and Porter to freely use, enjoy, and protect their beachfront homes. The Land Commissioner must abandon this illegal attempt to grab private coastal property for public use without just compensation, due process, or respect for Texas law.”
Under longstanding Texas law, the state owns the area of the beach between the average low and high tide lines. The land inland of the mean high tide line, which includes lots like those owned by Sheffield and Porter, is privately owned. The state can acquire public beach access easements on private land only by first proving a public right in a court of law or by purchasing the property. This was made clear in the Texas Supreme Court’s 2012 landmark decision in Severance v. Patterson.
Pacific Legal Foundation represents Sheffield and Porter free of charge. Their case, Sheffield v. Bush, was filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas.
Pacific Legal Foundation is a national nonprofit legal organization that defends Americans threatened by government overreach and abuse. Since our founding in 1973, we challenge the government when it violates individual liberty and constitutional rights. With active cases in 34 states plus Washington, D.C., PLF represents clients in state and federal courts, with 14 victories out of 16 cases litigated at the U.S. Supreme Court.
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