- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

BOLIVAR FLATS SHOREBIRD SANCTUARY, Texas (AP) - Down on their luck, Kevin Kurtz and Darcey Robertson say they have been living on the beach along the Bolivar Peninsula for about four months.

A few weeks ago, a neighbor at one location complained, prompting a deputy to ask them to move. So the married couple packed up and found a spot more than a mile from the nearest beach house.

They pitched their small, red tent at the edge of the Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, where thick grass and scrub of the coastal prairie gives way to a wide beach.

After their shelter failed during stormy weather, leaving both of them soaked one night, they used money from selling discarded aluminum cans to purchase a larger tent and pitched it alongside the first one. They beamed with pride as they showed the larger tent to a visitor.

Kurtz, 51, and Robertson, 54, were surprised to learn that camps such as theirs are among the reasons Galveston County is seeking legislative authority to regulate peninsula beaches.

They say they have kept out of trouble and pride themselves in the cleanliness of their encampment, but complaints about long-term campers over the years led commissioners to seek the new authority.

Counties in Texas only have powers granted by the Legislature, which has given them no authority over beaches.

“We don’t want to create the perception that we have a lot of vagrancy on the beaches because it’s not so,” County Commissioner Ryan Dennard told the Houston Chronicle (https://bit.ly/1vrrKk9). “This is just intended so when an issue comes up regarding public health that we are able to deal with it in a straightforward way.”

Dennard said commissioners have asked a state lawmaker to introduce a bill, but don’t want to reveal the name until negotiations are complete.

Unlike counties, cities like Galveston have the authority to regulate their beaches through ordinances. Galveston has one that bans camping between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m., city spokeswoman Kala McCain said. The only place to camp on the island is at Galveston Island State Park.

Bolivar authorities say there have been rare instances when beach campers have caused problems along the peninsula.

Sheriff’s Capt. Douglas Hudson, supervisor of the Port Bolivar summer beach detail, recalled the case of a man a few years ago who camped on the beach for more than a year. Hudson said the Sheriff’s Office had no authority to force the camper to move on, even though his use of the dunes as a restroom had become a health hazard.

Deputies called the county health district, which cited him for health violations. After he continued to violate health ordinances, a court order was obtained and deputies evicted him.

No other beach encampments were observed by a reporter during a recent drive along the peninsula.

“It’s rainy, it’s windy and it’s cold,” Robertson said about the difficulties of living on the beach. Even so, the couple finds life next to the Gulf agreeable. “We love it here,” Kurtz said.

They said they subsist mainly on canned food and are always on the alert for handouts. “If there is free food, I’ll find it,” Robertson said. “You have to be resourceful.”

A group making a cross-country trip set up camp near the married couple last month, parking large trucks on the beach and unloading horses and buggies.

The trucks, buggies, horses and elaborate encampment contrasted sharply with the meager camp of the homeless couple.

Jere Russo, 71, of Bennettsville, S.C., one of the campers, said Kurtz asked him for a ride to Crystal Beach. “He came over and was trying to bum a ride and we told him ‘No,’ to stay away from us,” Russo said. Kurtz never bothered him again, he said.

Dennard said commissioners aren’t interested in regulating campers like Russo, who stay on the beach a few days. He said regulations restricting short-term camping would probably conflict with existing state law.

Commissioners will ask state lawmakers for authority to write beach regulations rather than asking for legislation containing regulations.

Other counties and cities have regulated long-term camping by amending the regulations required by the Texas General Land Office to make sure the public has access to the shoreline under the Texas Open Beaches Act, Land Office spokesman Jim Suydam said.

Chambers County’s beach regulation limits camping to 21 days; Cameron County’s limits it to 14 days. The cities of Surfside and South Padre Island restrict camping to 14 days through their beach regulations, Suydam said.

“Our staff would be happy to meet with county officials and help with any request to amend the beach-access plan,” he said.

Dennard said the Galveston County commissioners would fall back on the beach-access plan if the Legislature doesn’t grant regulatory authority.

The effort by commissioners to regulate camping is low on the list of priorities for some Bolivar residents.

“There have been a few people that have complained about it, but not very many,” said Brenda Flanagan, a community activist.

Jeanie Turk, a real estate agent, said she would rather see commissioners force the cleanup of abandoned properties.

If commissioners get the power to regulate beach camping, they probably won’t be able to keep campers from moving to a new spot, Dennard admitted. “At least we can keep people from setting up shop,” he said.

Even Kurtz agrees that it’s reasonable to be asked to move his camp every so often.

“I agree with the sheriff. Keep moving every two weeks,” he said.


Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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