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Mobile Register
Fate of West End In Court Today
December 15, 2008

A legal battle over whether Dauphin Island's privately owned beach on the west end should become public is slated to be argued in a Mobile courtroom today.

The Dauphin Island Property Owners Association has held a stretch of beach on the barrier island's west end since 1954. Members of the association last year voted to transfer ownership to the Town of Dauphin Island, which would open the beach to the public. Proponents argued that the heavily eroded beach needs to be public to receive federal funds for rebuilding.

But two private landowners filed a lawsuit in Mobile County Circuit Court last year to block the move. The lawsuit claims the valuable waterfront property should be kept in private hands as required by the original deed given to the Property Owners Association in 1954. After several delays in court, the case is scheduled to heard in Judge Charles Graddick's courtroom this morning.

Barrier islands naturally move, erode and grow, fed by sand on the westward currents in the Gulf of Mexico. Federal scientists, though, have said that barrier islands in Mississippi and Alabama are rapidly disintegrating because of sea level rise, more intense and frequent storms and a lack of sand.

The case is a key part of an ongoing struggle by some Dauphin Island leaders to rebuild the island's beaches. The pricey task of bringing more sand to the beaches would likely cost millions of dollars, officials have said, and only a town-owned beach would be eligible for federal funding.

The lawsuit, though, argues that the condition of the west end beach isn't that bad and sand has been accumulating in areas.

"Plaintiffs assert that the subject beach is not underwater, and otherwise inaccessible ... and has, in fact, regenerated naturally and substantially since the last hurricane, Katrina," the 2007 lawsuit states.

Jim Hartman, one of the property owners who filed the lawsuit, declined to comment last week.

The lawsuit refers to the original land deed which requires that property be "kept and maintained forever as a recreational area for the exclusive use and enjoyment" of the Property Owners Association.

The state of Alabama owns the beach up to the mean high tide line. The beach from that line up to the home lots has been considered private for decades. Much of it is eroded and some lots are submerged under water.

In a letter to members last year, some association members argued that the beach can't be maintained or enjoyed if it continues to erode, and only the town could use public money to save it, according to court documents.

Bill Harper, Property Owners Association president, couldn't be reached for comment last week. An attorney for the association said its members were ready to go to trial; he declined further comment.

Erosion problems have continued to plague the island since the lawsuit was filed. Waves from Hurricane Gustav on Sept. 1 destroyed a three-mile protective sand berm on the west end, followed by more damage to the beach from Hurricane Ike on Sept. 13. Federal officials denied a request by the town to rebuild the berm because parts of the beach were completely wiped out by the storms, leaving no land on which to build.

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