A bill that would reshape future legal battles over Texas’ public beach boundaries is stirring backlash from advocates and former state leaders, who claim the proposal would give beachfront property owners the green light to vacuum up pieces of the state’s public beaches.
Senate Bill 434, filed last month by state Sen. Mayes Middleton of Galveston, would give private property owners the upper hand in legal disputes over public beach access between their residences and the Gulf of Mexico.
Such disputes are governed by Texas’ Open Beaches Act, which has long established the public’s right to use privately owned beach area extending from the vegetation line — the beach’s inland boundary, where sand gives way to foliage — to what’s known as the “mean high tide line” along the water.
Under current law, property owners can only scrap a public easement in front of their property — thus blocking the public from passing through it — if they offer legal proof that the area shouldn’t be covered by the easement.
Middleton’s bill would upend the law, shifting the legal “burden of proof” to the state or anyone looking to establish that a public easement exists on someone’s beachfront property. Critics say the change would embolden property owners to fence off beach area long accessed by the public — access that could only be regained through legal action.
Middleton did not respond to a request for comment. He defended his legislation in a statement to the Galveston County Daily News last month, arguing it would “not in any way take away our open beaches or limit them.”
“Right now, all over the state of Texas, if the state claims your land as theirs — then they have to prove it. But, sadly, on beachfront property, if Texas claims the property as theirs, it’s presumed to be the state’s — unless the landowner is able to refute the rebuttable presumption,” Middleton said. “My bill is a beachfront private property rights bill that makes beachfront land treated like land in the rest of the state and changes the presumption so that the state must prove it is state lands and the landowner no longer has the burden of proof.”
See here for the argument against, as presented by former Land Commissioners Dewhurst, Patterson, and Mauro. I have no reason to trust Sen. Middleton on this, and that’s even without me already being a steadfast Open Beaches Act supporter. I don’t know what the odds are of this bill passing, but I would take it seriously, as it’s the kind of thing that may get by because no one gives it all that much thought. To that end, the sunshine may help. Reform Austin has more.