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A Constitutional Right to the Beach?: Prop 9

There are 11 different propositions on the ballot this election season. Some, like Proposition 4, may look familiar; but a lot are pretty hard to understand. There is one, however, that should ring a bell with Texans: Proposition 9, which guarantees the public's right to use the beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Most people probably think that is already the public's right. From the KUHF NewsLab, Melissa Galvez explains.



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Macario Ramirez has three beaches houses down in Surfside.  Well, HAD three.  Until Hurricane Ike.

“One of my beach houses was washed away.  It’s in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico.”

Ramirez is in his 70’s, and has owned a Mexican crafts store in Houston for nearly 30 years.  He says he bought those rental houses as part of his retirement package, and because he loves the water.  But because of beach erosion, one of those houses is now on a public beach.  And the passage of Proposition 9 could make it nearly impossible for him to ever get that land back.

“Everyone wants to get on to the beach, we’ve never kept anyone from that.”

To understand Proposition 9, you have to understand the Open Beaches Act.  Here’s Texas Land Commissioner, Jerry Patterson:

“The Open Beaches Act was passed in 1959, and it codified something that existed since Texas was a republic, and before that when Texas was part of Mexico.  It says that the beaches are open to the public between the mean low tide line, and the line of continuous vegetation.”

In other words, the public has a right to visit everything from the dune plants, to the water’s edge.  No one builds on this land, but as the sand erodes, some houses end up on public beach.  At that point, the State has the right to reclaim that land.  Homeowners are aware of the risks in building on the beach.

Proposition 9 would not change that.  In fact, it would make that right permanent-by placing it in the Texas Constitution.  State Representative Richard Raymond wrote the bill that become the ballot measure.

“Someday, if some big corporation wanted to get a piece of South Padre Island, or Galveston island, or Mustang Island, that the way the law stood, they could try to go lobby the legislature.  So I thought, if we take this law, and put it into the Constitution, it would take two thirds of the legislature to approve it, and it would have to be put before the voters, and they would have to approve it.”

Proposition 9 has diverse support, from the State House, to the Sierra Club to the Texas Association of Realtors. 

But not some beachfront homeowners. Ramirez is part of group which is suing to keep their homes, relying on the 5th Amendment protection of private property. And, he says, Texas could have done more to avoid this conflict: re-nourish the beaches with extra sand.

“The State of Texas did little or nothing to protect the beaches and to re-nourish the beaches for public use.”

Patterson says the General Land Office does replenish the beaches, but that they don’t have to.

“We have no obligation to do that, it is not the one of the duties of the Land Office. Nonetheless, we’ve allocated about $130 million dollars to do beach re-nourishment and other projects along the Texas coast.”

So if Proposition 9 becomes law, the public will have a constitutional right to the beach.  And homeowners may need to take Mother Nature just a little bit more seriously.

From the KUHF-NewsLab, I’m Melissa Galvez.