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As Beaches Creep In, Ownership Disputes Erupt

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As Beaches Creep In, Ownership Disputes Erupt

As Beaches Creep In, Ownership Disputes Erupt

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/91586603/91606582" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Living on the shore has always been risky. Storms and hurricanes take their toll on beachfront houses. Well, now global warming is raising sea levels and threatening to move the shoreline inland. Consider the saga of one home on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Independent producer David Baron has that story. It's part of the series we call Shifting Ground. Today, battle lines in the sand.

DAVID BARON: Surfside, Texas - it's a small beach town south of Houston. No fancy condos here, no high-rise developments, just one traffic light, rows of cottages on tidy lawns, and at 809 Beach Drive, a house painted sky blue. A plastic sign displays its name.

Mr. BROOKS PORTER (Co-owner, The Sand Castle): The Sand Castle.

Brooks Porter and his wife, Merry, bought the Sand Castle a quarter century ago. They wanted a beach house that the family could use and that they could rent out for income.

Mr. PORTER: We wanted a fixer-upper because that's what we could afford.

Ms. MERRY PORTER (Co-owner, Sand Castle): We were looking for a house that needed somebody to care about it.

Mr. PORTER: And it was perfect.

BARON: In other words, it was a wreck, but you couldn't beat the location.

Mr. PORTER: We had sand dunes and salt grasses growing in front of our house.

BARON: And just beyond - the beach. Since then, Surfside has seen some of the worst erosion on the Texas coast. The dunes are gone. So is the salt grass. The house now sits at the water's edge, stranded like a beached whale. A whale on stilts, that is.

Mr. PORTER: The house is up out of the ground by a good 10 feet.

BARON: This is a pretty unusual situation to be in - have a house above and seashells, and well, some seaweed, and the waves are right there.

Mr. PORTER: Yes. The water - you can tell that occasionally it's going to come up underneath the house.

BARON: But the Porters say it's not the water that worries them.

Mr. PORTER: The real threat to our family's house is not hurricane and flood. It's from the state of Texas.

BARON: The Porters have been engaged in a decade-long struggle with the state government, and it's a fight that may foreshadow battles in other coastal areas. At issue: What happens when the public beach moves onto private property? You see, in Texas, and to varying degrees in other states, the beach is essentially a park.

Mr. AARON ROBERT SCHWARTZ (Former State Senator): You can't go out and build a house on a state park.

BARON: And you can't keep a house on a state park, even if the house was there first and the park moved under it, says former State Senator Babe Schwartz. He's an author of the Texas Open Beaches Act, a 50-year-old law that declares the beach a public way.

Mr. SCHWARTZ: If you've got any piece of your structure on what is state land, then you're not entitled to keep it there.

BARON: That's what the state told Brooks Porter and some of his neighbors back in the late '90s. By then, the beach had moved inland onto their lots.

Mr. PORTER: They said, we want you to remove your houses from your lots because of the Open Beach Act.

BARON: Brooks Porter said no. He and some neighbors hired a lawyer.

Mr. TED HIRTZ (Lawyer): Your Honor, there are three separate motions in behalf of the plaintiffs.

BARON: Houston attorney Ted Hirtz represented the homeowners at more than a dozen hearings in district court beginning in 2001. He argued that the houses shouldn't have to be removed from the beach because they didn't interfere with the public use of the beach.

Mr. HIRTZ: The public can still sunbathe around them. The surfers can still surf. No one is adversely affected.

BARON: That argument failed. The judge ruled that the homes violated the law and would have to go - eventually. For the time being, the houses could stay, he said, while the case was on appeal. But the judge barred the homeowners from making any repairs. So when an especially high tide knocked out sewer and water pipes several years ago, Brooks and MerryPorter couldn't reconnect them.

Ms. PORTER: See - turn it on and nothing happens.

BARON: Merry Porter stands by the kitchen sink.

Ms. PORTER: No water coming out of the pipes...

BARON: So no using the bathroom?

Ms. PORTER: No using the bathroom.

BARON: That kind of makes the house not very usable.

Ms. PORTER: Makes it difficult for spending the night, for just anything.

BARON: But the Porters remained undeterred. They pressed another argument with the state. They said it's unfair for the government to punish them because the government created this predicament. You see, coastal erosion here and elsewhere is not a purely natural phenomenon. Government projects like dams, jetties and ship canals can rob the shore of sand, and studies show that's what happened at Surfside.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. JERRY PATTERSON (Commissioner, Texas Land Office): Hello? Okay, we're going to get this town hall meeting under way.

BARON: State officials came to Surfside to address that issue and others in the fall of 2006. Jerry Patterson is Texas land commissioner.

Mr. PATTERSON: You know, there are those who say that this erosion is caused by manmade activity. I don't disagree. There are those that say, well, it's because of global warming. There are those who say all these other reasons. I don't - I'm not going to argue against that or in favor of that. But the question is, what do we do today?

BARON: Patterson offered a solution. He said the state would try to slow the erosion by putting a million dollars' worth of sand on the beach. That should help keep more houses from ending up by the water in the future. But as for the homes already on the beach, he said it's too late to save them. In fact, they have to go to make way for the sand.

Mr. PATTERSON: What I'm telling you is, is the front row is in the way of anything we can do to preserve the other rows.

BARON: Patterson offered a solution there, too. He said the state would pay the cost of moving homes from the beach onto inland lots. More than a dozen homeowners accepted the offer, but 14 houses remain on the beach, and among these holdouts are Brooks and Merry Porter. They say the state's offer was inadequate. The state refused to pay them for their land.

Mr. PORTER: Both the Texas and the United States Constitution spell it out, that you cannot take property from individuals or from families without adequate compensation.

BARON: The state says it's not taking anyone's property; the Gulf of Mexico is. But this constitutional argument is the basis of the Porters' continuing lawsuit. That lawsuit is headed toward a state appeals court and possibly beyond.

Mr. PORTER: We and some of the other people will fight this, if need be, all the way to the Supreme Court.

BARON: And a lot of people will be watching. How this case gets resolved could set a precedent far beyond Texas. What if rising seas threaten one day to swamp skyscrapers in Manhattan or entire towns in Florida? Whose responsibility will it be to move buildings out of the way? Who will take the hit for the lost property value?

(Soundbite of children playing)

BARON: In Surfside, children still play around the homes on the beach. They scoop sand into buckets. They upend the buckets to build towers. They adorn the towers with shells and feathers. Then the tide turns, and the castles of sand melt into the sea.

For NPR News, I'm David Baron.

SIEGEL: And you can see just how close to the edge these homes are in an audio slide show at our Web site, npr.org.

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