Whose Beach Is It, Anyway?

Unbeknownst to the average beachgoer or coastal tourist, privately owned land comprises a sizable portion of our nation’s public beaches. As shown in the above picture of a coastal town in northern Virginia, property lines for oceanfront lots frequently spill over onto adjacent beach land, sometimes even extending well into the sea. Private parcels such as these often contain within their boundaries strips of beach that are freely accessible to, and habitually used by, the public.

Owners of such parcels are often entirely unaware that their property lines extend onto the bordering shore. Owners who are privy to this fact tend to regard the overlapping land as belonging to the public, and they welcome public access (or at least accept it, however begrudgingly). Others, however, believe – and have been known to defend that belief, with varying success, in courts of law – that they are entitled to sole ownership of whatever portion of beach that falls within their property lines, and that public access should be restricted.

The relationship between public beach access and private property rights is a sticky, often complicated issue that has been the subject of countless legal disputes between private owners and municipal or state governments. The aim here is to clarify this confusing issue, to outline how public and private rights to beach access vary among states, and to demonstrate why an understanding of this matter is essential when considering an oceanfront purchase.

Public trust doctrine – the ancient legal principle stipulating that a government may retain and protect certain resources for public use – is responsible for establishing the common law right of state governments to hold in trust all beaches for public use. Today, each individual state is responsible for articulating, interpreting, and enforcing the particular guidelines that determine which beach land may be designated as public.

In most states, public trust doctrine affords the public unrestricted access to all beach land below what is known as the ‘mean high tide line’ – the average line on the shore reached by water at high tide. Citizens are free to use all land located below the mean high tide line – what is referred to as ‘wet beach’ – for fishing, boating, sunbathing, or simply strolling along the shore, and private owners are prohibited from owning this land. Private owners are typically free to own the beach above the mean high tide line, however – what is referred to as ‘dry beach’ – and are in some states legally allowed to restrict public access to that land at their own discretion.

In Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, it is the mean low tide line that demarcates the public from private land. In other words, only the land below the average shoreline formed at low tide belongs to the public, and private owners can own land all the way down to that shoreline. The public is allowed access to the wet beach, though it doesn’t belong to them, and they are generally barred access to the dry beach unless, as in some cases, the private owners allow for public access, or sell the rights to the public access to their local or state government.


At the other end of the spectrum, Hawai’i, Louisiana, and Washington grant the public unrestricted access to all beach land and prohibit private buyers from buying any shore property, period. In these cases, the beach is generally understood as the land spanning from the ocean water at low tide all the way to the vegetation line, or where the sand ends. In Oregon, Texas, and New Jersey, private buyers may own dry beach that falls within their property lines, but the public is still guaranteed unfettered access to that beach, regardless of its private ownership; wet beach belongs entirely to the public.

When it comes to the increasing public access to beaches, each coastal state faces a unique set of challenges. Different policy restrictions, economic limitations, physical barriers, and population needs all impact a state’s capacity to provide adequate public access to its seashores.

If you are looking to purchase an oceanfront property, an understanding of the public trust doctrine and how it relates to private property rights in whichever state(s) you’re considering is essential. If you don’t like the idea of tourists romping about on your beach property, and would prefer the solitude that private beach access affords you, you might confine your search to the five states in which beach access is more widely restricted to the public, and private beach ownership more feasible. If you are more receptive to the idea of a bustling beach scene just steps from your home and would prefer the friendly, communal feel of beachgoers from far and wide sharing the beach in your backyard, you might be more drawn to properties in the six states in which public access to beaches is most protected.



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