The Town of Dauphin Island will be granted ownership of the west end private beach so that
officials can pursue a rebuilding project on the eroded waterfront property, under a lawsuit
settlement agreement announced Monday.
Dauphin Island Property Owners Association members voted last year to give about 3 and one half
miles of beach to the town. Proponents argued that public ownership of the beach would make it
eligible for government funds to rebuild.
But two property owners filed a lawsuit to stop the move, claiming the valuable property
shouldn't be given away for free.
Under the settlement, the town will have seven years to start repairing the eroded beach or
the property will be returned to the Property Owners Association, which has held the land since
1954, attorneys on the case said.
The state of Alabama owns the beach to the mean high tide line, while the beach from that line
up to the private home lots has been private. Much of the barrier island's west end is eroded
and submerged under water.
Bringing more sand to the beach would be a costly task. Town officials have estimated the price
at up to $4 million per mile.
The settlement requires the town to complete a study for an engineered beach project within
five years and begin construction within seven years, attorneys said.
"By doing this, the town has a limited amount of time with which to get something started," said
John Lawler, attorney for Jim Hartman, one of the property owners who filed the lawsuit.
"It's possible the beach could renourish itself. ... It's an ever-changing thing."
Barrier islands naturally grow, erode and change shape, fed by the natural westward shift of
sand on the currents. Federal scientists, though, have said the Mississippi-Alabama chain of
barrier islands are disappearing with growing speed because of sea level rise, more intense and
frequent storms and a lack of sand.
Mayor Jeff Collier said the town has been searching for funding to repair the disappearing beach
in recent years, but elected officials have denied requests because the land was privately owned.
"We can get this behind us and start moving ahead and get serious about trying to find some
long-term help," Collier said. "The island is in such a condition that we don't have a lot of
extra time to spend."
The lawsuit had argued that the original 1954 deed to the land required the beach be "kept and
maintained forever" for exclusive use by its members. Some association board members before the
vote argued that the beach can't be properly maintained if it is allowed to erode away.
"Dauphin Island - it's in a critical phase," said Clifford Brady, attorney for the association.
"We've got to move forward and take steps to get it protected, get it renourished, so this allows
us to go ahead and begin that process."
Meanwhile, a lawsuit by the Property Owners Association blaming west end erosion on U.S. Corps
of Engineers' dredging practices in the Mobile Bay ship channel has been pending in federal court
since 2000. One possible outcome of an ongoing settlement proceeding in that case could be a
beach renourishment project on the west end.