Hundreds of people whose beachfront homes were wrecked by Hurricane Ike may be barred from rebuilding under a little-noticed Texas law. And even those whose houses were spared could end up seeing them condemned by the state.
Now here's the saltwater in the wound: It could be a year before the state tells these homeowners what they may or may not do.
Worse, if these homeowners do lose their beachfront property, they may get nothing in compensation from the state.
The reason: A 1959 law known as the Texas Open Beaches Act. Under the law, the strip of beach between the average high-tide line and the average low-tide line is considered public property, and it is illegal to build anything there.
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Over the years, the state has repeatedly invoked the law to seize houses in cases where a storm eroded a beach so badly that a home was suddenly sitting on public property. The aftermath of Ike could see the biggest such use of the law in Texas history.
“I don't like it one bit,” said Phillip Curtis, 58, a Dallas contractor who owns two homes — a $350,000 vacation home and a $200,000 rental — on Galveston Island's Jamaica Beach.
“I think the state should allow us to try to save the houses. I don't appreciate the state telling people, ‘Now it belongs to us.' It breaks your heart.”
The former state senator who wrote the law had little sympathy.
“We're talking about damn fools that have built houses on the edge of the sea for as long as man could remember and against every advice anyone has given,” A.R. “Babe” Schwartz said.
Ike's 110 mph winds and 26-foot waves obliterated the 4- to 6-foot dunes and redrew the tide lines along a broad stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Texas General Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican whose office is responsible for policing the beaches, said he saw hundreds of houses in jeopardy of being declared on the beach unlawfully as he flew over the coastline this week.
“And those are the ones still standing,” he said. Other homes, he said, were reduced to pilings sticking up out of the sand or water.
Patterson said no decision on whether homeowners can continue living there would be made for at least a year, while authorities watch the ever-shifting boundaries of the beach.
“You want to have at least a complete all four seasons and find out what Mother Nature is actually going to do until she finishes what she's going to do,” Patterson said.
Those whose homes were destroyed can collect insurance. But it is unclear whether those whose undamaged homes are condemned under the Texas law will get any compensation, from the state or anyone else.
Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said the agency used to offer people up to $50,000 to move, but he didn't know if that fund still exists.