State Senator Mayes Middleton, R-Galveston has proposed ending the public’s right to enjoy the state’s Gulf Coast beaches, and many current and former members of his own party oppose the effort outlined in Senate Bill 434.
Texas, unlike many other coastal states, guaranteed public access to state beaches when it passed the 1959 Texas Open Beaches Act and has a long-held tradition in the form of a common law that provides that state beaches are open to the public.
The highly controversial and unpopular bill, according to Middleton, is simply an effort to make certain that coastal waterfront landowners have the same rights as property owners in other parts of the state.
“Senate Bill 434 makes no changes to restrict the Open Beaches Act, which remains a continuous use easement as always,” Middleton wrote in a statement to The Daily News. “It only changes the presumption if the state claims your beachfront private property as state lands.”
If the bill were to become law, beach-side property owners would be allowed to ban the public from using any access paths — whether roads or footpaths — anywhere on their property along the Gulf Coast.
But many in Galveston disagree with Middleton’s premise. “No matter how many times that’s said, it doesn’t make it so,” said Jackie Cole, former Galveston city councilwoman and member of the beach and dune ad hoc committee. “This will change it. If it wouldn’t, why was it filed?”
What Exactly Does the Bill Do?
SB 434 relates “to the burden of proof in a suit or administrative proceeding to establish that an area is subject to the public beach easement.”
If SB 434 were to become law, not only would it negatively impact Texas beachgoers, it hurts beachfront property owners as well — because public money must be spent for a public purpose — so the state government would then be unable to spend tax dollars on improving property with no public access.
This means that beach refreshing projects, which include beach cleanup and other maintenance would fall on the property owners.
Thus, some property owners see the bill as a threat to Texas’ long-standing law guaranteeing that beaches belong to the public rather than private-property owners.
“People who aren’t familiar with how bills are worded or phrased, when they read this they really don’t see an issue,” said Ellis Pickett, founding chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Texas, Upper Coast Chapter, told the Galveston Daily News.
“It makes it more difficult to file an enforcement lawsuit under the Open Beaches Act. It’s another step in the process that will make it more difficult to remove violations on the coast. Politicians are reluctant to remove them anyway,” Pickett continued.
“In 2009, the Open Beaches Act became part of the Texas Constitution, approved by 75 percent of those voting in a statewide referendum. This bill is a chipping away or watering down of the Open Beaches Act. The wording of the bill is difficult to read, much less fully comprehend,” said Jeff Seinsheimer with the Surfrider Foundation, Galveston chapter.
“Currently, Texans have the right to access the state’s beaches from the mean low tide line to the line of vegetation,” Seinsheimer explained.
“Under the new bill, if a person claims a private property owner or establishment is violating their right and they pursue litigation, the burden of proof would fall on the person making claims against an establishment. Bottom line for me, proving the beach is public should not be our burden,” Sensheimer concluded.
According to the Texas Natural Resource Code, “It is declared and affirmed to be the public policy of this state that the public, individually and collectively, shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to and from the state-owned beaches bordering on the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico, or if the public has acquired a right of use or easement to or over an area by prescription, dedication, or has retained a right by virtue of continuous right in the public, the public shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to the larger area extending from the line of mean low tide to the line of vegetation bordering on the Gulf of Mexico.”
Joanie Steinhaus, Turtle Island Restoration Network Gulf program director, said “This bill would kill tourism in many coastal communities if the right to beach access is restricted.”
“Everyone should have the opportunity to access the beach, enjoy time with family and friends, and not be burdened with proving the right to beach access ingress and egress to the sea as stated in the bill,” Steinhaus warned.
So this begs the question — who would benefit from the proposed bill, if not coastal residential property owners or the public?
Going To The Beach A Right In Texas
In Texas, public access to Gulf Coast beaches is not only current law, but it was enshrined in the state constitution in 2009 when Texans voted by a 77 percent to 23 margin in favor of the measure. The Open Beaches Act was passed in 1959 and was amended in 1991 to address friction between beachgoers and property owners. Beachfront property owners are made aware of the public beach easement in their closing documents since 1986.
The Texas Gulf Coast is 350 miles long, but has 624 miles of total shoreline, running from Sabine Pass to the Rio Grande River. Among the Gulf Coast towns are marsh-surrounded Beaumont, historical Galveston, tropical South Padre Island, Port Isabel, and Brownsville.
According to the Texas General Land Office website, “Under the Texas Open Beaches Act the public has the free and unrestricted right to access Texas beaches, which are located on what is commonly referred to as the “wet beach,” from the water to the line of mean high tide.”
“The dry sandy area that extends from the “wet beach” to the natural line of vegetation is usually privately owned but may be subject to the public beach easement. The line of vegetation may shift due to wind, and wave and tidal actions caused by storms and hurricanes,” the website states.
This week, former high-ranking state politicians of both the Democratic and Republican parties, Garry Mauro, Jerry Patterson, and David Dewhurst all joined together to pen an op-ed in the Galveston Daily News that vehemently opposes SB 434.
Middleton No Stranger To Controversy
Middleton is president of Middleton Oil Company, an independent oil and gas company that operates in South Texas and the Gulf Coast region.
In recent legislative sessions, he has been a vocal critic of green energy incentives provided by the federal government, calling them “distortions” — blaming the growth of solar and wind power for the failures of the state power grid.
Middleton was first elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 2018 and re-elected in 2020. He was endorsed by former president Trump, and ran unopposed in the 2022 general election,
Middleton is also a former member of the board of directors at the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) and was elected to the board in January 2016. He then had to relinquish his seat in June 2017 when he announced his candidacy for the Texas House of Representatives.
The TPPF is an advocacy group dedicated to wholesale changes to K-12 education, voucher systems, as well as curriculum and school library list reviews. The group is partially-funded by two far-right billionaire Texans, Tim Dunn and Farris Wilks, who have a stated goal of creating a “Christian Nationalist” environment in the state’s school systems.