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Off Beaten Path, Coastal Cabins Are Paradise for Their Permit Holders

Through a nearly 40-year-old program run by the Texas General Land Office, several people hold permits to use cabins on remote, state-owned islands near the Intracoastal Waterway. Permit holders love the isolation — and the fishing.

Bill and Gail Mullinax's 720-square-foot Laguna Madre cabin is accessible only by boat. It is about a 10-minute ride from the nearest marina in Corpus Christi, where the couple lives.

CORPUS CHRISTI — Bill and Gail Mullinax’s island retreat, a 720-square-foot cabin accessible only by boat, is about a 10-minute ride from the nearest marina in Corpus Christi, where the couple live. From their deck, they can spot only three other cabins: two stand among the reeds on islands to either side of theirs, and one, in front, floats in the long, shallow bay known as the Laguna Madre. It is a great spot for fishing.

While drinking coffee on his porch last week, Bill Mullinax spotted some redfish. He walked to the water and cast his line three times before catching one, which he and his wife ate for dinner.

“We much prefer being out there,” said Gail Mullinax, who enjoys photographing tugboats that motor past their front door. “Where else can you walk around and see water 360 degrees?”

The couple built the structure and a pier through a permit granted through a nearly 40-year-old cabin program run by the Texas General Land Office. There are 407 such cabins on state-owned islands, mostly in Brazoria County and between Corpus Christi and Brownsville. Rent, at 60 cents per square foot, has changed little since the program began, but now some legislators wonder if the state should charge more.

“It may not be a lot, but I think every committee is going to be looking at revenue-raising measures,” state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, chairman of the House Land and Resource Management Committee, said last month after a hearing that included testimony on the program.

Oliveira said that no concrete changes had been proposed but that the committee might hold another hearing during the session to get additional input from permit holders about any program policies that need to be altered.

But Amy Nuñez, coordinator of the cabin program, said the land office had maintained prices so that tenants could afford cabin maintenance. 

Most cabins stand on islands created when the United States Army Corps of Engineers dredged the 12-foot-deep Intracoastal Waterway along the Texas Gulf Coast in the 1940s to accommodate boat traffic. They piled excess mud next to the channel, which stretches to Florida, and fishermen saw the new land as ideal building locations.

The structures remained unregulated until 1973, when the land office’s cabin program was established. The program is self-sustaining.

Cabin permits, which are renewed every five years, allow only recreational use of the structures. The structures cannot be permanent residences. Largely because of the remote locations, none have running potable water or are connected to an electric grid. Some cabin users prefer to maintain the rustic lifestyle, though the Mullinaxes have internet and cellphone service, a portable icemaker and a generator-powered air-conditioner.

Thirty-seven permits belong to either the original permit holder, a family member or a descendant. David McKee, a biology professor at Texas A&M University in Corpus Christi, has had a permit for decades.

McKee’s children grew up visiting what they all call Twin Palms island, a “very rough five-star location,” he said. He fondly recalls drinking beer and eating barbecue with other island dwellers, and he considers the community so rare that he wants to publish a collection of cabin memories.

“You can see why it would be kind of addictive. There’s no bad news that comes in the mailbox. There’s no bills,” McKee said. “It’s all fishing.” 

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