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Brannan v. State of Texas: Making Texas Beach Access A Force To Be Reckoned With

A new opinion involving the Texas Open Beaches Act, rolling easements, and the takings clause came down this week from the Court of Appeals of Texas, First District in Houston.

The opinion, deciding an ongoing battle between Homeowners versus the State, General Land Commissioner, Attorney General and Defendants Surfrider Foundation and Environemntal Defense, was delivered in the context of a denial of a rehearing. The Homeowners were challenging public beach access easements (or right to make beneficial use of the land) in Surfside Beach, where the Plaintiffs houses ended up on the sandy beach after Tropical Storm Frances in 1998.

In deciding the case, the court determined the following points:

• “the Open Beaches Act protects the public's free and unrestricted right to use the larger area extending from the line of mean low tide to the line of vegetation if the public acquires that right through prescription, dedication, or custom;

• in this appeal, it is undisputed that under the common law and the Open Beaches Act the easement” rolls” or moves with the shifting of the line of mean low tide and the line of vegetation;

• the evidence conclusively shows that there is an easement by implied dedication on these properties because the public has historically used the beach in the area where these properties are located;

• the Open Beaches Act requires the removal of the houses because it applies to anything that interferes with the public's right to use the easement, which occurred here when the easement rolled to the houses; and

• common law requires the removal of the houses because their presence interferes with the use historically given to the public at Pedestrian Beach, which included its use as an unobstructed road for travel, swimming, beach combing, and other beach related activities”

This case interprets the Texas Open Beaches Act, which is near and dear to Texas beachgoers. The Act, in part, states:
“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.” Tex. Nat. Res. Code Ann. § 61.011(a) (Vernon 2001).

Ellis Pickett of Surfrider Foundation

The Court strongly presented evidence of implied dedication based on use, in which Ellis Picket of the Texas Upper Coast Surfrider Foundation Chapter, was cited for his personal affidavit testifying to the public's decades of beachgoing through engaging in usual beach related activities, such as swimming, boating, surfing, fishing, picnicking, sunbathing, beach combing and relaxing. The Court ruled, “[t]he summary judgment evidence shows that for a period of at least 40 years, the public has openly used Pedestrian Beach where these properties are located. The evidence shows that Pedestrian Beach 'has always' and 'forever' been a public beach 'widely' used by the public up to the line of vegetation without the public asking permission from any owner of the property; in the 1960s, Pedestrian Beach was a public road in the 1960s until cars were banned there by the Village; Pedestrian Beach was used by the public for typical activities such as swimming, fishing, sunbathing, playing, relaxing, beach combing, surfing; and Pedestrian Beach has been kept clean by members of the public.”

Once again, Texas case law has recognized the common law “rolling easement” concept, especially in reciting the eloquent statement: “The law cannot freeze such an easement at one place any more than the law can freeze the beach itself. . . . An easement fixed in place while the beach moves would result in the easement being either under water or left high and dry inland, detached from the shore. Such easement, meant to preserve the public right to use and enjoy the beach, would then cease functioning for that purpose.” quoting Matcha, 711 S.W.2d at 98-100.

Finally, the Court explained why the takings clause does not apply to a rolling easement: “The specific question we answer today, which has not previously been addressed by this Court or another court of appeals of this State, is whether a taking occurs when an easement rolls to a house that was not initially on the easement. Although this specific question is a matter of first impression, Texas courts of appeals have consistently held that removal of a structure or obstruction from the public easement under the Open Beaches Act is not a taking because the Act does not create an easement, but provides a method of enforcing an easement acquired by other means.” See Seaway, 375 S.W.2d at 930; see also Arrington, 767 S.W.2d at 958; Moody, 593 S.W.2d at 379-80, and distinguishing Nollan v. California Coastal Commission.

In sum, this important case reaffirms the strong Texas Open Beaches Act by broadly defining an encroachment to public access, confirming the common law underpinnings and logic of the concept of rolling easements, and denying the claim for “takings” in the instance of a private structure coming onto public land.