Open Beaches Act leaves Bolivar property owners unsure of next move

Marilyn Tennissen Oct. 2, 2008, 8:00am

Crystal Beach aerial photo taken Sept. 8, a few days before Hurricane Ike made landfall. Judge Bob Wortham's beach house is indicated by the arrow.

When the first aerial pictures of Crystal Beach after Hurricane Ike came out, it looked like Judge Bob Wortham's house was one of the few beachfront structures still standing.

But while it appeared intact from a distance, the scene was completely different up close. Wortham, judge of the Jefferson County 58th District Court, found that walls were ripped away from storm surge, rooms were trashed, the frame was damaged and the foundation was crumbling.

The judge is now faced with the same questions that thousands of other Bolivar Peninsula property owners are asking about what to do next: Rebuild, demolish or wait?

The problem is a Texas law prohibits home construction on beaches between the water line and the vegetation line. Ike's 110 mph winds and 15-foot storm surge ate away so much of the sand – from 100 to 200 feet – that what was once private property may now be a part of the public beach.

The Texas Open Beaches Act, first enacted in 1959, could allow the state to seize homes on the beach front in order to comply with the law.

The General Land Office says it will not enforce the law for now, and is allowing homes on the Bolivar Peninsula and Galveston to be repaired. But homeowners, like Wortham, aren't sure whether to make repairs, since the houses could end up being seized by the state.

The last time the state invoked the Open Beaches Act was following Hurricane Alicia in 1993. California and Oregon have similar laws.

The real decision-maker will be Mother Nature. The GLO reports it will take at least four seasons for the dunes to reestablish themselves and for the vegetation line to develop. So where the public beach line will be a year from now is unclear.

"I'm not going to touch my house for a year," Wortham said at an informational meeting for peninsula property owners recently. "We just don't know how much of the beach will return."

In the meantime, Wortham and other property owners are determined to bring life back to the stricken community.

At a Sept. 24 informational meeting that Wortham organized, hundreds filled the jury impaneling room at the Jefferson County Courthouse to learn about progress on the restoration of utilities and road repairs to the peninsula.

More than a dozen committees were established that will help put the home and business owners in charge of the recovery. Included are committees for information, water, energy, transportation, housing, legislature, insurance and schools.

"Crystal Beach and the Bolivar Peninsula was created and developed by Southeast Texans," Wortham said. "That's our beach. And we want it to come back, even better than before."

A meeting is scheduled for Oct. 15, and GLO Commissioner Jerry Patterson has been invited to attend to address the Open Beaches question.

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