December 1, 1999
by Bill Patterson
[This is the fourth and final article on the modern history of Dauphin Island. The first covered the building of the bridge to the island during the 1950s, the second the purchase and development of the island by the Mobile Chamber of Commerce, and the third the organizations set up by the Chamber to govern the resort island.]
America's ocean beaches, from the water's edge to the mean high-tide line, belong to the public. There are sixteen miles of Gulf beach on Dauphin Island. Nearly a half century ago, in its Dauphin Island Trust, the Mobile Chamber of Commerce pledged itself to "the establishment and maintenance of public and semi-public community and recreational beaches, playgrounds and other recreational facilities." Today, however, most of the island's beachfront is private property.
In 1971 the federal government created the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The National Park Service incorporated barrier islands and estuaries in Florida and Mississippi into the nation's largest national seashore. Today no land in Alabama is in the park, but at one time it seemed Dauphin Island might be included. The Harbinger spoke last week with Jesse Earle Bowden, the person credited as most responsible for the creation of a national seashore on the Gulf of Mexico. Bowden, the former editor of the Pensacola News Journal, used both his editorship and his standing in the community to push for the park. Last week The Harbinger asked Bowden why none of Dauphin Island was part of the park. Bowden said the Park Service considered including Dauphin Island, but dropped the idea. He remembered taking an airplane ride along the Gulf coast with the Park Service, and that, when the plane flew over Dauphin Island, the park officials told him "the island was just too developed." Bowden said the Park Service definitely wanted to include Alabama's Ono Island and the western portion of Perdido Key in the seashore park, but their plan fell through because Ono Island was too expensive and Perdido Key was too developed. Bowden recalled that Frank Boykin, long involved in the development of Dauphin Island, owned much of Ono Island.
Another factor, Bowden indicated, was the lack of grassroots support in Alabama for a federal seashore. He also believed Park Service officials, as they planned the national seashore during the 1960s, "perceived a climate" in Alabama in which officials were hostile to joining the park system. Bowden remembered Mobile Congressman Jack Edwards, years after the 1960s, proposed legislation to make Dauphin Island part of the national seashore. Edward's proposal went nowhere.
In the 1950s the Chamber of Commerce set aside two beaches for the public. The beaches were at the east end of the island and three miles to the west on the Gulf. The latter beach, located near the Little Red School House, an island landmark, was where the Chamber built the Sand Dunes Casino. Today both beaches, operated since the 1950s by the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board, have badly eroded. According to Susan Rees, a property owner on the island and a scientist with the Army Corps of Engineers in Mobile, the beaches the Chamber gave to the Park and Beach Board are "the two most naturally eroding parcels" of beach front on the island. Asked if the engineers who worked for the Chamber during the 1950s knew this land was vulnerable to erosion, Rees said the experts "had to have known."
The erosion of the beaches on Dauphin Island has accelerated since the 1970s. A series of hurricanes have affected the island. Today the east end is so seriously eroded that most of the beach is gone and swimming is forbidden because rip tides have caused a number of drownings during the past decade. In January 1999 Scott Douglass, a civil engineering professor at the University of South Alabama, published 'State-of-the-beaches' of Alabama: 1998. The study examined erosion on Alabama's coastline. In the report he described the beaches on Dauphin Island: "The beaches of the east end of Dauphin Island have experienced some of the most dramatic shoreline recession in the United States in the past 20 years." The Douglass study explained that as much as 500 feet of the east end beaches have disappeared. Toward the west, Douglass found the shoreline from the Park and Beach Board's main beach to the end of Bienville Blvd. has eroded an average of two to three feet per year since 1970. This erosion destroyed the improvements made at the Park and Beach Board's main beach during the 1980s.
'State-of-the-beaches' of Alabama: 1998 concluded political support for the protection of the state's beaches depends on public access to them. Last week The Harbinger talked with the mayor of the City of Dauphin Island, Jeff Collier, about public access to the island's beaches. He said that the city owns "zero beach front property" and the Dauphin Island Park and Beach Board owns slightly under one mile of beach front. Collier said the Property Owners Association owns five or six miles of beach front west of the public beach, a strip of land that lies between the mean high tide line and the property lines of the homes on the Gulf.
Collier told The Harbinger, while the public has the right to go on Park and Beach Board property with no charge, the beach front owned by the Property Owners Association is private property. Collier said that out of thirty-three streets on the island's west end, six run up to the beach-front strip owned by the Association. He said the right of the public to cross the land from the city streets is a "gray area." He said that, while there are no signs welcoming people to cross to the beach, the Association does not try to stop the public from crossing its land.
On the rest of the island, according to Collier, most of the Gulf-front property is not accessible to the public. From the east end of the island, where the Park and Beach Board owns Fort Gaines, west to the Board's main beach, much of the beach front is within gated communities that forbid public access. Collier noted the remaining Gulf beachfront is the eight miles of undeveloped privately owned property on the island's west end.
It was not always the case that the Property Owners Association let visitors cross "the gray area" to the beach. In 1967 the Association built a large archway over Bienville Blvd. On the structure the Association hung a sign that read: "No trespassing to beaches. No trespassing to seawalls." In 1968 Mobile County and the Park and Beach Board, faced with growing crowds of beachgoers and pressure from the Property Owners Association, decided to open more beaches to the public. The officials rented two miles on the west end of the island. But in 1978, the West Dauphin Corporation refused to renew the lease and fenced off the west end.
Today this eight miles of Gulf beach is blocked with a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire. The land has been in the hands of the Boykin and Forney Johnston families since the 1930s. Riley Boykin Smith, Alabama's Commissioner of Conservation, is one of the principal owners of the land, now held in a company called West Dauphin L.L.C. In the 1973 book, Everything's Made for Love in This Man's World': Vignettes from the Life of Frank W. Boykin, Edward Boykin reprinted a 1965 letter from Frank Boykin to members of his family. In the letter Frank Boykin wrote about the west end of Dauphin Island: "Another great piece of property that is going to mean an awful lot to all of you is Dauphin Island. Forney Johnston, Aunt Catherine and a few of us have eighteen miles of that beautiful island . . . ." This eighteen miles counted both the Gulf and Mississippi Sound sides of the west end. During the 1950s Frank Boykin and Forney Johnston and their partners had sold much of the island to the Chamber of Commerce.
In the early 1970s several local politicians pushed for the state to take over the Park and Beach Board property. The Mobile Press Register advocated a state or federal takeover of the Park Board land. Later in the decade some politicians wanted the state to purchase the West Dauphin Corporation property for a pubic park. The attempt almost succeeded in 1978 when L. W. "Red" Noonan, then a state senator, introduced a bill to fund the purchase. The most recent offer to open the west end to the public came in 1996 when its owners offered to donate land for a public beach if the county would build roads, water supply and sewer connections for two miles of private development. The remaining six miles would be offered for sale to the state or a conservation organization. The deal fell through when a citizens group, Forever Dauphin Island, stopped the development with a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.
If any state agency is promoting the public's right to the beaches on Dauphin Island it's the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA). Gilford Gilder, Chief of Coastal Programs for the state agency, told The Harbinger that "public access is a prime concern for the Coastal Program." According to Gilder, Dauphin Island's beaches should be opened to the general public, but he doesn't believe "the public is made welcome" by the Property Owners Association. ADECA has funded public improvements on the island in recent years. Gilder noted that the majority of the Coastal Programís money spent in Mobile County has been spent on the island. ADECA helped build a restroom at the ferry ramp on the island and has given a grant for a rest- and changing room at the Park Board's main beach. Gilder thinks that in the future, when state and federal money is spent on the island, local leaders will have to provide more access to the island's beaches. He noted that today Alabama's public officials don't understand how to "use the lever" of federal funding to win access for the public. He said, in the Coastal Program's policies, "if the public benefit is negligible then the Coastal Program won't support it."
Cherie Arceneaux, a policy and planning specialist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, works with ADECA's Coastal Program. She told The Harbinger the program is working on a survey of public land on Dauphin Island. Arceneaux said that, though the right of the public to cross Association property to the beach is unresolved, she believes this right can be established under a "prescriptive easement." She explained that such an easement is established if the public has crossed the Association lands for many years. Arceneaux said that the Coastal Program officials will probably ask Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor soon whether such an easement has been established.
The Chamber of Commerce promoted the public good in the 1950s when it helped build a bridge to Dauphin Island and constructed a public beach resort. But by the 1980s, Dauphin Island had failed as a resort for the public. In 1950, before a bridge was built, 250 people lived on the island and nearly all the island was owned by Frank Boykin, Forney Johnston and their partners. Today the island has many absentee property owners. Fifteen hundred people live on the island year round, but 3,000 people own property there. The island offers few accommodations for tourists. According to an ADECA report, Dauphin Island had only 150 coastal rental units in the spring of1998, compared to over 7,000 units in Fort Morgan, Gulf Shores, and Orange Beach.
Federal, state and local taxpayers helped fund the Chamber of Commerce's development. During the 1950s the Internal Revenue Service approved an income-tax exemption for the money raised by the Chamber of Commerce from the sale of its Dauphin Island subdivisions. The state helped pay for the first bridge to the island. Mobile County cleared land for the Chamber's subdivisions and built forty miles of hard surface road on the island. The federal government's contribution increased after 1979 when severe erosion and damage to the island's infrastructure resulted from a series of hurricanes. These calamities required spending by the federal and state taxpayers to sustain Dauphin Island as a community. After Hurricane Frederic, the federal and state government spent $38 million to build the second Dauphin Island bridge and another $6.5 million on other projects, a total of $90 million in today's dollars. Over the past two decades the federal government has paid out millions in flood insurance programs to rebuild private homes damaged by storms. The Public Trust Doctrine, as old as the thirteen original colonies, assured the right of Americans to use the nation's shores. Local government and business leaders have ignored this ancient obligation.