It could also create a buffer between South Padre Island and a recent Texas Supreme Court ruling that appears to threaten the state’s longstanding “open beaches” policy that guarantees public access to Texas beaches.
The Texas General Land Office, which overseas beach erosion control, announced in 2010 that every community along the coast was required to come up with its “erosion response plan” or else become ineligible for grant money for beach renourishment or any kind of shoreline protection or maintenance project.
The county’s plan calls for erecting a dune along the entire length of the beach from just north of the South Padre Island city limits to where the terminus of State Park Road 100 — about seven miles. In addition, the county would impose a “setback,” or minimum distance between the dune and any construction, though that distance has yet to be determined.
“We didn’t want to just put in a setback and not protect the property,” said county parks director Javier Mendez. “Our committee came up with the idea for this erosion protection dune to run the entire distance of the beach.”
The aim is to close gaps in the existing dunes where water rushes in during storm surges, he said, noting that the new dune would be planted with vegetation to stabilize it.
“It’ll help protect property and save private and public money,” Mendez said. “That’s the whole purpose of the erosion response plan guidelines … to prevent the expenditure of public and private funds to either remove homes or any type of infrastructure that has been put on the beach by storm surge and erosion.”
Once the dune was up, no one would be allowed to level it, and no construction would be allowed until the dune is in place. The beach within city limits isn’t included in the plan since there’s already a seawall in place. Obviously the project would require quite a bit of sand, which would probably come from the right-of-way paralleling the highway along the northern stretch — which regularly gets buried by migrating dunes.
“We’ve been working with the (Texas Department of Transportation) to come up with a plan to be able to move that sand over to the seaward side, Mendez said. “If we’re able to get this concept off the ground and build this dune, it probably won’t eliminate it, but it would reduce the amount of sand that’s blown onto the highway.”
The committee and the county are mulling how to build and finance the project. One possible option for financing is to set up a special taxing district for landowners in the affected area, as opposed to taxing all county taxpayers, Mendez said. No cost estimate exists yet, he said. If the commissioners court approves the plan it will go to the GLO for state approval, but only after a lengthy public comment period.
“All the (coastal) communities have to have a plan in place by December 2012,” Mendez said. “In order for us to have the plan approved by December we’ll have to submit it by July.”
One provision of the plan would close Beach Access No. 5 to vehicular access and move vehicular access north. The county also envisions more access points — “walk-over” access points traversing the dune — plus more parking to compensate for less vehicular access.
“Our thought is that vehicular traffic also exacerbates erosion,” Mendez said.
He hopes property owners on the north end, not to mention the GLO, will buy into the plan. Mendez noted the large property owners he’s spoken with expressed their support for it.
Meanwhile, the Texas Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Severance vs. Patterson case alarmed the state’s open beaches proponents by siding with property rights over unconditional preservation of a public easement. The longstanding assumption has been that the easement “rolls” landward when erosion occurs — even in the case of storm surges — in order to preserve public access.
In 2005 California attorney Carol Severance bought several rental houses on the beach on West Galveston Island. After major beach erosion from Hurricane Rita, the GLO informed Severance her property was now on the public easement and thus subject to removal under the Texas Open Beaches Act. She sued. The Supreme Court decided that rolling easements did not apply to the kind of sudden, massive erosion that Rita caused. Critic of the decision — including a dissenting Supreme Court justice — predicted the ruling throws open the door to waves of lawsuits citing Severance vs. Patterson as a precedent. The case now goes to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
By offering additional protection against erosion, the dune proposal might lessen the chance that the Island will become a venue for another Severance vs. Patterson. Mendez thinks a dune would be effective except against a direct hit from a major storm.
“If we have maybe a Category 1 or 2, I think this is going to be the way to do it,” he said. “If we were to get hit by a Category 4 or 5, everything would be gone.”