GALVESTON, Texas — Hundreds of people whose beachfront homes were wrecked by Hurricane Ike may be barred from rebuilding under a little-noticed Texas law. Even those whose houses were spared could end up seeing them condemned.
It could be a year before the state tells these homeowners what they may or may not do, and if the homeowners do lose their beachfront property, they may get nothing in compensation from the state.
Under a 1959 law known as the Texas Open Beaches Act, the strip of beach between the average high-tide line and the average low-tide line is considered public property, and it is illegal to build anything there.
Over the years, the state has repeatedly invoked the law to seize houses in cases where a storm eroded a beach so badly that a home was suddenly sitting on public property. The aftermath of Ike could see the biggest such use of the law in Texas history.
The former state senator who wrote the law had little sympathy. "We're talking about damn fools that have built houses on the edge of the sea for as long as man could remember and against every advice anyone has given," A.R. "Babe" Schwartz said.
Ike's 110 mph winds and 26-foot waves obliterated the 4- to 6-foot dunes and redrew tide lines along a broad stretch of the Texas Gulf Coast.
Texas General Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, a Republican whose office is responsible for policing the beaches, said no decision on whether homeowners can continue living there would be made for at least a year, while authorities watch the ever-shifting boundaries of the beach.
Those whose homes were destroyed can collect insurance. But it is unclear whether those whose undamaged homes are condemned under the Texas law will get any compensation, from the state or anyone else.
The law was enacted when there were far fewer houses on the Texas coast. There are lot more houses on the coast now than there were in 1983, during Hurricane Alicia, the last time the law was invoked against large numbers of homeowners.
Schwartz said the area's homeowners should not be surprised.
"Every one of them was warned of that in their earnest money contract, in the deed they received, in the title policy they bought," he said. "And whether you like it or not, neither the Constitution of the United States nor the state of Texas nor any law permits you to have a structure on state-owned property that's subject to the flow of the tide."