HOUSTON (AP) — The Texas Supreme Court said Friday the state can't take over private beachfront land when storms leave houses on sand after washing away coastal plants, long considered the line between public and private property.
The ruling could end a decades-long dispute that resurfaced after each hurricane washed some of the Texas Gulf Coast back into the water.
The state had argued it could condemn the land, saying the homes were now on a "public beach" and had to be made accessible under a law guaranteeing public access to sandy beaches.
However, the Supreme Court said condemning the beachfront land violates the rights of property owners.
"This is a big victory," said J. David Breemer, the attorney who represented property owner Carol Severance. "For 30 years, the state is telling everybody the vegetation draws the public beach line. Not anymore."
The Supreme Court will hand its 6-2 opinion to the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to make a final ruling.
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who was named in Severance's lawsuit and has been a proponent of the public beach laws used to condemn lands after storms, said his office is still studying the ruling.
"We really don't know what it means or what the net result will be," Patterson said.
The six judges who formed the majority opinion drew from laws and deals dating back to the 19th century, when Texas was a republic. At that time, the court said, the republic agreed that land on Galveston Island's West Beach could be owned by private people. When Texas became a state, it recognized those beachfront deals, guaranteeing the landowners the protection afforded private property owners. .
Hurricane Rita's winds and rain pounded the Texas shoreline in 2005, leaving Severance's home along a sandy coast. The state insisted her land was now a public beach and ordered her to demolish the structure. Later, it offered her $40,000 if she removed the home according to the state's timeline.
Severance filed suit against the state, arguing the move to take away her land without offering her fair compensation violated her constitutional rights. She also argued the risk she took when she bought a beachfront property was that the home could suddenly be washed away, not that if erosion left her yards within a sandy coast that the state could take her land.
The court agreed with her argument, saying "losing property to the public trust as it becomes part of the wet beach or submerged under the ocean is an ordinary hazard of ownership for coastal property owners" but "it is far less reasonable" to change an owner's rights to land based on gradual, natural beachfront erosion.
"On the one hand, the public has an important interest in the enjoyment of Texas' public beaches," wrote Justice Dale Wainwright. "But on the other hand, the right to exclude others from privately owned realty is among the most valuable and fundamental rights possessed by private property owners."