A version of this story ran in the April 2014 issue.
Above: Ellis Pickett fights erosion of the Open Beaches Act.
The majority of Texans live in landlocked areas, but those of us who visit the state’s beaches have advocates like Ellis Pickett to thank for fighting to keep the coast open to the public.
Texas has upheld the public’s “birthright” to play on state shores since the passage of the Open Beaches Act of 1959. It’s one of the most progressive laws the Texas Legislature has ever enacted, enshrining in statute the idea that the coastline is a treasure for all Texans to share. In a state in which more than 90 percent of the land is privately owned, that’s a rare sentiment. Specifically, the Open Beaches Act protects the public’s right to access and use the state’s beaches. But developers and homeowners have lately challenged that right of access, seeking to turn stretches of the coast into private lands.
A landowner named Carol Severance took on the Open Beaches Act in court. Severance, a Californian of all things, sought to maintain control of her coastal properties after a tropical storm pushed back the Galveston Island coastline, placing her homes on public land.
In a September 2012 ruling in the case—Severance v. Patterson—the Texas Supreme Court sided with Severance. The court ruled that portions of the coastline were exempt from the Open Beaches Act, a decision that some feared would gut the statute.
Private owners have since challenged the public’s access to beaches in several cases, including Brannan v. State of Texas, which challenges the public’s access to Surfside Beach in Brazoria County and other popular recreation spots.
The fight to protect public access from further erosion has fallen on Pickett, head of the Texas Upper Coast chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, and his colleagues. For Pickett, 63, the issue is close to home. Inspired by the 1966 film The Endless Summer, Pickett has surfed the waves of the Gulf since he was a teen. He began advocating for open beaches in 1998 after becoming increasingly alarmed by development along the coast.
Pickett said he hopes Texas’ coasts don’t go the way of California’s, where gated shores are common in residential communities.
“That’s un-Texan, that’s not something we should have here,” Pickett said. “Every session there are bills filed that whittle [the act] away. There are things that give some special interest control over the coast to develop it or create a tax district that includes special loopholes in construction and special regulation—that’s what we have to be aware of.”
Pickett, who lives in Liberty, northeast of Houston, drives more than 100 miles every week to ride the waves and find his zen at Surfside Beach. His chapter of the Surfrider Foundation was formed in 1999 with other beachgoers, a group he thought would mainly be surfers who would pick up some trash and throw the occasional party.
“I found the great conflict between development and private property versus public property rights,” Pickett said. “We needed to make sure [to have] a beach for our grandchildren. We needed to work in the political and legal system to ensure open beaches are preserved.”
Though recent court rulings have degraded the Open Beaches Act, most Texans still support the idea that everyone should have access to the beach. In 2009, Texans voted by an overwhelming majority to add the Open Beaches Act to the Texas Constitution.
Still, every legislative session there are bills filed to limit public access to beaches. Pickett describes himself primarily as a lobbyist. He has worked through seven legislative sessions to uphold public access to the coast. His mission, he said, is to preserve nature’s beauty for young Texans, like his 7-year-old niece Tori, to enjoy.
Pickett says he doesn’t consider beach access a liberal or conservative idea. “I consider that a Texas right.”