Texas Supreme Court Affirms Property Rights of Shoreline Owners

On March 30, 2012, the Texas Supreme Court, in Severance v. Patterson, affirmed the private property rights of shoreline property owners. In doing so, the Court ruled the public’s right of access to state beaches is not guaranteed in the event of a hurricane or storm reshaping the coastline.

This ruling is thought to limit the state’s ability to enforce the Open Beaches Act, a 53 year old law that has in the past been used to compel landowners to raze or move structures that intrude on the public right of way due to storm erosion. The opinion focuses on the "dry beach," which runs from the high tide mark to the vegetation line and may be privately owned, as opposed to the “wet beach” which  runs from the high tide mark to the water, which is public land.

In so ruling, Justice Wainwright stated:

The public may have a superior interest in use of privately owned dry beach when an easement has been established on the beachfront. But it does not follow that the public interest in the use of privately owned dry beach is greater than a private property owner’s right to exclude others from her land when no easement exists on that land.

This 5-3 ruling is the result of a controversy that began after Hurricane Rita moved the vegetation line behind Carol Severance’s properties on Galveston Island, and she was ordered to raze or move her structures.