Beach Access

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by Katie Tannenbaum

Contents

Surfrider Foundation’s Stance on Beach Access

Beach access is a universal right and necessary for the public’s enjoyment of the beach. Surfrider Foundation promotes the rights of the public, including all recreational user groups and members of the community, to enjoy low-impact beach access, including the enjoyment of coastal aesthetics. Surfrider Foundation’s members live, work, visit, and recreate on and near the world’s beaches, and are impacted by beach access limitations. Surfrider encourages recreational user groups to balance their interests and to work cooperatively with local residents and decision-makers to ensure maximized coastal access for all persons.

Surfrider Foundation also recognizes the importance of balancing ecological integrity with beach access. Surfrider Foundation recognizes the unique ecological, recreational and economic value of the world’s coastal resources. We support strong beach preservation and protection efforts when securing or augmenting low-impact beach access opportunities. As a grassroots, environmental organization, Surfrider Foundation works toward both the preservation and enjoyment of our precious coastal resources.

Surfrider Foundation believes decision-making bodies should recognize the following principles when evaluating beach access issues:

  • The public has an inherent right of access to and along all beaches and shorelines. Generally, local authorities have the primary authority to develop and maintain public access to and along the shorelines.
  • Existing public coastal access opportunities must be retained, new or increased public access opportunities should be provided, and development must not be allowed to interfere with public access. Furthermore, beaches that provide access for water-oriented recreational activities should be protected for such uses.
  • The public should be afforded full and fair access to beaches, which are public trust resources, by minimizing the possibility of impediment; including development, subdivision or land use zoning change; or deterring obstacles, including gates, fences, hired security, misleading signage, rock walls, shrubbery or other blockades, being placed upon public rights of way to beach access.
  • Means of access to the beach (“vertical” or “perpendicular access”) should be readily available and secured so as to maximize access along the coast and should not be overly burdensome for the potential beachgoer to utilize.
  • When beach access may impede upon sensitive ecological coastal resources, beach access may be managed or restricted if necessary to protect the sensitive ecological coastal resource. Not all beach and coastal areas are appropriate for heavy recreational use or significant human presence. Sensitive ecological areas warrant restrictions and buffers to reduce negative impacts to beach ecosystems.
  • There exists a cultural value of active visitation to the beach as part of traditional, historical and/or customary practices.
  • Coastal views from offshore to the inland coastline and from inland areas to the ocean view should be highly valued. The public coastal viewshed should be preserved in relation to all public viewing corridors, including from offshore, ocean-based vantage points and views of surfers, fishers, boaters, kayakers, and others from nearshore waters.
  • Preferably, the world’s beach resources would always be open and free to all persons. However, if parking or beach fees are collected, the recovered funds should be used for purposes which are directly related to coastal access, recreation, management, restoration, conservation, and preservation efforts in the general vicinity of where the fees are collected.
  • Wherever appropriate, public facilities, including parking areas, showers, bathrooms, changing areas and other amenities, should be made available in a manner that mitigates the adverse impacts, environmental, social or otherwise of public access.
  • Surfrider Foundation advocates for development setback requirements that take into account the rate of sea level rise, so as to allow any new structures to withstand damage from hurricanes or flood events without the use of shoreline armoring or other ecologically destructive development. Coastal development policies should work towards managed landward retreat of existing structures from eroding shorelines. Any access improvements should also contemplate sea level rise.


To view Surfrider Foundation’s full Beach Access Policy, see here.

Laws and Legal Precedent

Today, nearly every state’s laws have incorporated the Public Trust Doctrine, though variation between states exists. Every state is responsible for their own enforcement, or protection, of the trust. This, along with different state-level coastal access laws in place, results in different translations of what free shoreline access really means.

The most common way states determine where to grant public access to their coasts and beaches is by applying a concept based on the mean high tide line. In most states, all land below the mean high tide line belongs to the state and citizens have the right to unrestricted access to that land. Intuition would indicate that this “line” is where the sand changes from wet to dry during high tide. This, however, is not always the case. The mean high tide line is actually the arithmetic average of high-water heights observed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over an 18.6-year Metonic cycle. It is the line that is formed by the intersection of the tidal plane of the mean high tide with the shore. It is not an easy line to determine, and it is an even harder one to see. From standing on the beach watching the waves, there is no way of knowing exactly where the mean high tide line falls, or where public land begins and ends, making enforcement a difficult and controversial task.

Public ownership and public access to beaches based on the public trust doctrine or other common law doctrines. The public has access along some dry beaches in most states, in addition to the six shown here, where access is universal. (U.S. EPA)

The coastal states of Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Virginia use the mean low tide line rather than the high tide line to demark the boundary between private and public property. These states do not own the intertidal zone of their beaches, and therefore private property owners can own land all the way down to the mean low tide line. This line is also determined through NOAA surveys of the average low water mark over an 18.6 year period. In these five states, the intertidal area is not necessarily privately owned along the entire coastline, but it may be. In the states of Maine, Massachusetts and Virginia the vast majority of the coast is privately owned. In Maine, intertidal land is presumed to belong to the upland property owner, unless legal documentation proves otherwise. In Delaware, the property boundary between public and private lands varies between mean low tide, mean high tide, and a meets and bounds description on a deed, depending on the location along the shoreline. In New Hampshire a distinction is made for water access depending upon whether the beach is state owned or maintained.

In addition to interpreting and enforcing the public trust right of access, states may also provide the public with a right of access to and along the beach through the application of laws such as the traditional or customary use doctrine; prescriptive easements; express, implied, or mandatory dedication; and eminent domain. Customary use, which has been applied in Hawaii, Oregon and Texas, grants permanent public access based on ancient, peaceful, uninterrupted and reasonable use of the beach by the public. Similarly, a prescriptive easement can be established if the public can demonstrate use of a particular beach or accessway for a set number of years (which varies by state) without objection or interruption from private landowners. Express dedications may be granted through direct statements or the appropriation of land by the property owner. Implied dedications, similar to prescriptive easement, may be manifested through actions whereby the public is allowed uninterrupted beach access. A mandatory dedication occurs when a development, or a contract of some form, is conditional on the dedication of beach access. Finally, eminent domain is a simple legal proceeding through which states can assert their authority to condemn private property in order to make it available for public use. However, when the government uses eminent domain, it must provide just compensation to the property owner. The exceedingly high costs of coastal property make this option unattractive if not impossible for states to implement on a large-scale basis.

In addition to federal regulations, many states have their own laws in place to protect public access. But other regulations and local ordinances, which may unnecessarily restrict public beach access, exist in many areas. Additionally, government officials do not always properly enforce regulations related to coastal access. Limited funding, lack of political will and a proliferation of private property along our coasts may also hinder government improvement of public beach access policies.

Threats to Beach Access

While many of us take beach access for granted, it is important to realize that preserving public access is a constant struggle that requires continued defense and maintenance. Threats to beach access come in many forms, including policy restrictions, physical barriers, economic limitations, coastal development and modifications, and future climate change impacts. These limitations inhibit coastal states’ ability to provide adequate public access. Additionally, as the country’s population continues to grow, the demand we place on our coastal resources increases. As a result, the gap between the supply of and demand for beach access widens, and what is supposed to be a common public resource is being made less and less available.

Most states report having an insufficient number of public coastal access points, with some states averaging less than one access for every ten miles of shoreline. Where beach access does exist, it is often inadequate for a number of reasons. Besides being poorly maintained, many lack proper amenities. Signs locating beach access points may not exist or may not be obvious. In some areas it is common for locals to relocate or remove signage in order to keep visitors off of the beach. The replacement of these signs is often prolonged or never done. Lack of roads and parking are other common barriers to public access. Some beach routes are not well marked (as mentioned above), poorly maintained, require off-highway vehicles or are completely inaccessible by road or vehicle. Many access points have little or no public parking nearby and may require beachgoers to walk long distances, sometimes in high traffic areas, to get to the water. Other locations with parking areas frequently don’t have enough spots available to accommodate the high demand for shoreline use. Those beaches with ample parking may charge steep fees to visitors traveling via car. Other beach facilities that may be lacking include public bathrooms, showers, waste disposal systems and lifeguard services.

Beach accessways may include piers, harbors, docks, roads, parking lots, stairways, walkovers, trails, signs and restrooms, all of which require funding for their implementation and maintenance. Funding by state and federal agencies for activities related to public access is often limited and generally not adequate to meet demand. Additionally, the acquisition of land for beach access is becoming increasingly difficult due to rising property values and the scarcity of undeveloped coastal land.

Natural topography, ongoing coastal erosion and sea level rise also make implementation and preservation of beach accesses challenging. Many beaches are located just below sea cliffs, beyond thick vegetation or along rocky shores. Without the resources for the construction of stairways or walkovers, access to these beaches is often comprised of narrow, steep or overgrown walkways. Furthermore, many existing accessways may degrade over time due to harsh saltwater conditions, natural weathering and increasing erosion rates. The Surfrider Foundation encourages adaptive management, or making considerations for expected sea level and coastal changes when planning, implementing and maintaining beach access.

The privatization of coastal land complicates and exacerbates these problems. Actions by coastal private property owners to prevent public access to beaches are an unfortunately common occurrence. While owners have the right to the land above the mean high tide line in most states, some property owners take measures to prevent beachgoers from accessing the public shore adjacent to their property. These illegal actions include removing beach access signage, putting up no trespassing or private property signs, adding vegetation to block or hide access points or make it appear as if it is private property, erecting fences and hiring private security to turn away beachgoers. Waterfront commercial developments that do control public beach access, such as beach clubs, often charge exorbitant usage fees. Development can also block or degrade views both from the land to the waves and from the water onto the coast.

Population growth is another factor that increases the demand for this limited resource. In 1980, the U.S. population was at 231 million people. As of 2008 it was more than 304 million, an increase of over 70 million people in less than 30 years. These trends are expected to continue, further straining the demand for coastal access. The fringe of coastal land that makes up 17% of the nation’s land mass is home to more than half of these people, and these are among the most rapidly growing areas in the country. As population continues to increase and more people move to coastal areas, public access opportunities can get squeezed out. This rapid growth also increases demand for many of our nation’s other services and resources, which often take priority over providing public beach access when funding is limited. As a result, the number of access points in most states is not growing fast enough to keep up with current population demand, increasing the strain on existing access points. Furthermore, coastal towns may have limited accommodation capacities, especially affordable accommodations, for increasing numbers of overnight visitors.

Growing population, expanding development and increased consumption can have detrimental affects on our coastal environment. Our planet’s oceans often see the worst of these affects as we deplete natural resources at an unsustainable rate while releasing much of our waste into the water. Inadequately treated wastewater, improper solid waste disposal, illegal dumping, and urban runoff from dense coastal development all contribute to degraded water quality. These concerns reach beyond the waters and often end up right on our shorelines. Washed up and left behind trash and other pollutants not only degrade the quality of recreation for beachgoers but also harm wildlife. Beaches in highly polluted areas may be shut down for significant portions of the year due to unhealthy water conditions, further restricting public beach access. On-shore development may block coastal access and may also remove open areas which provide recreational space and shade for beachgoers and habitat for many species.

Many threats to beach access exist today. Most of these threats can be addressed through proper management and planning, increased funding, renewed enforcement of existing laws, or changes to current laws and regulations. However, these solutions are often difficult to attain and require strong public support. One thing that can and should be done is to expand the public’s knowledge of existing beach access locations, current coastal access issues in their region and their rights as U.S. citizens. Many people are unaware of existing regulations and the rights granted to them by the Public Trust Doctrine. This lack of education further limits people’s ability to access the beach. By improving education and developing community awareness, people can become empowered not only to exercise their civil rights, but also to take the necessary actions that will initiate change and improve beach access for all.

Model Programs

Oregon

Of all the U.S. coastal states, the state of Oregon may have the best legal protection for the public’s use of and access to its coastal land. Thanks to Oregon’s landmark Beach Bill, passed in 1967, the public’s right to access to all of the state's beaches is guaranteed. Additionally, the Bill establishes a state easement on all beaches between the low water mark and the vegetation line. Hawaii is the only other state that secures public land all the way to the line of vegetation. According to Oregon’s Coastal Zone Management program, Oregon’s coastal policies essentially say that the beach is a public right of way and that the public has the right to free, unrestricted access along the entire Oregon coast.

The 2009 documentary, Politics of Sand, provides a detailed look at the establishment of the Beach Bill through the application of the customary use doctrine. This law states that if the public's recreational use of an area has been ancient, reasonable, without interruption, and free from dispute, such use, as a matter of custom, should not be interfered with. The expansion of this doctrine to all coastal areas has made Oregon a model for state public beach access programs.

In addition to the Beach Bill, Oregon has other laws that preserve and protect public access. Statewide Planning Goal 17 - Coastal Shorelands, requires that public lands, rights-of-way, and easements which provide physical or visual access to coastal waters not be sold unless some public access or potential for access across the property is retained. The state has a requirement that every time a coastal accessway is closed, a new access point must be constructed or an existing access site must be improved in order to maintain or increase the level of public access.

Texas

Like Oregon, Texas has a statewide law guaranteeing the public the right to unrestricted access its coasts. In the Texas Open Beaches Act, passed in 1959, “it is declared and affirmed to be the public policy of this state that the public, individually and collectively, shall have the free and unrestricted right of ingress and egress to and from the state-owned beaches.” While numerous attempts have been and continue to be made to weaken the Act, this state common-law still holds today.

A recent hit to the Texas Open Beaches Act came on June 22, 2009, with the passage of HB770. This amendment allows for private development on public beaches on the Bolivar Peninsula, essentially privatizing them. In doing so, this amendment undermines the Texas Open Beaches Act and sets a dangerous precedent for the entire Texas Coast and the public’s right to access and use public beaches. All five Texas Chapters of the Surfrider Foundation (Texas Upper Coast, Texas Coastal Bend, South Texas, Central Texas and Galveston), along with thousands of others, took action to actively oppose the controversial amendment. While the law is currently in place, the Texas Land Commissioner has refused to enforce the legislation.

In response to the passage of HB770, measures were taken to protect the Texas Open Beaches Act from similar harmful legislation. Texas Constitutional Amendment No. 9, “The constitutional amendment to protect the right of the public, individually and collectively, to access and use the public beaches bordering the seaward shore of the Gulf of Mexico” appeared on the November 3, 2009 state ballot and was passed overwhelmingly by the voters. This should prevent the approval of any future legislation inconsistent with the Texas Open Beaches Act.

Another change to the Open Beaches Act was a 1991 amendment, which gave the Commissioner of the Texas General Land Office the authority to create the Texas Beach/Dune Rules. These rules established guidelines that require local governments to develop beach access and dune protection laws, which typically occur in the form of management plans. Thus, the responsibility for protecting the public's right to use and enjoy the beach is shared by the state and local coastal governments.

As part of a local government’s beach access plan, they are responsible for posting signs indicating all beach access points. Between pedestrian and vehicle access, Texas has approximately 360 public coastal access sites. This corresponds to about one public access site for every mile of shoreline, which meets current beach access demand in Texas. In addition, the state employs various methods to minimize environmental impacts of coastal access, including designated accessways, educational signage, and dune walkovers.

North Carolina

According to the North Carolina Shorefront Access Policies, “The public has traditionally and customarily had access to enjoy and freely use the ocean beaches and estuarine and public trust waters of the coastal region for recreational purposes and the State has a responsibility to provide continuous access to these resources.” These policies, established by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (NCDCM) under the Coastal Area Management Act, promote free public access to the entire expanse of the sandy beach. Although state ownership is only up to the mean high tide line, the state has encouraged the courts to allow unrestricted use of beaches up to the vegetation line based on the common law theories of customary use since "time immemorial," the public trust doctrine, implied dedication, and prescriptive use.

Estimates for the total number of beach access sites in North Carolina vary significantly, but even the highest of these estimates indicate a low access site to coastal land ratio. However, North Carolina has taken great efforts to improve this, as recommended in the Shorefront Access Policies, “It is the policy of the State to foster, improve, enhance and ensure optimum access to the public beaches and waters of the 20 county coastal regions.” In order to meet this requirement, the State has created a Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access grant program, “for the purpose of acquiring, improving and maintaining waterfront recreational property at frequent intervals throughout the coastal region for public access to these important public trust resources.” Through this program, the NCDCM matches funding from local governments to acquire, construct or improve public beach access facilities. Since its establishment in 1981, over 280 access sites have been constructed.

Model Beach Access Guides and Inventories

Massachusetts

The state of Massachusetts has taken great efforts to inventory and report all coastal access sites along their 1,500 miles of shoreline. In 2006, Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management (CZM) completed the State Register of Protected Coastal Accessways, a GIS database for tracking all public shoreline access entitlements. It also documents the regulation and acquisition programs of several state agencies. The process of building the Register database began in 1995 with the completion of an inventory of all publicly accessible coastal properties owned by federal, state, and local governments and by non-profit conservation organizations. During 2005, fieldwork to collect information on such public access sites along the remainder of the coast was completed. The CZM worked with staff from the MassGIS Program to develop an Online Locator of Coastal Public Access Sites (Access Locator). The Access Locator includes maps and site-specific information for over 1,000 beaches, parks, conservation areas, and ways to the sea, ranging from the well-publicized expanses of National Seashore down to the smallest local footpaths and landings. The Register now includes Chapter 91 license access conditions and public easements across private property. An exciting new feature is that the Access Locator now provides "coastwalking" information in the form of downloadable trail maps and associated descriptive material published by the government and non-governmental organization owners of sites containing any kind of footpath. Making this available online provides recreational visitors to the shoreline with a valuable service. The Register will also have significant value in coastal land acquisition planning and in resolving disputes about public versus private ownership of coastal properties. This data is also expected to be published in CD-ROM format as part of the Massachusetts Ocean Resource Informa tion System (MORIS).

Along with building up the coastal access database, Massachusetts CZM has taken significant strides in increasing the amount of information available about publicly accessible beaches and other public recreational facilities in the Commonwealth since 2000. A revised edition of The Massachusetts Coast Guide to Boston and the North Shore was published in 2004. The Coast Guide identifies hundreds of diverse coastal areas that are open to the public. The coastline offers much more than large public beaches on hot summer days. This guide shows the location of many smaller, more intimate areas that are not so well known. It acquaints the reader with less familiar coastal landscapes by showing the way to rocky shores, secluded coves, tidal creeks, marshes, estuaries, and islands (some of which can be visited only by boat). In addition, boat ramps, piers, trails, visitor centers, restrooms, and dozens of other facilities and amenities are noted. The detailed maps show the different coastal access areas and the roads to take to find them. Although brief, the site descriptions give a sense of what you will find when at each location. You can view the guide online or get a free print copy by e-mailing your address to czm@state.ma.us.

The MassGIS website has a Public Access Board (PAB), which identifies over 150 coastal and inland water boat and canoe launch sites. The principal source for this has been a publication by the Public Access Board (PAB) of the Department of Fish and Game (DFG), Public Access to the Waters of Massachusetts. This 150-page guide includes 90 individual full-color site maps, descriptions of more than 200 access points to state waterways, information about sportfishing piers, fishing in fresh and marine waters, boating law, rights of access, and information about DFG boating and fishing programs.

New Jersey

The quantity and quality of coastal access in New Jersey is tracked every five years as part of the CZM Section 309 Assessment and Strategy. In NJ CZM’s 2001 Assessment, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) recognized the need to develop and maintain information regarding the location, number, type, and extent of existing public access areas along the coast.

The NJ CZM made this a high priority and the DEP now has a Public Access Web page, which contains a map of public access points along the Atlantic Ocean from Monmouth County to Cape May County. The site also includes information on beach facilities and a handbook to the Public Trust Doctrine. Through its coastal permitting and beach fill programs, the DEP now requires public accessways every quarter mile as a condition of project approval. Details on this proposed new access rule are also highlighted on the DEP’s Public Access website.

CZM’s 2006 Assessment is now available. The Assessment discusses beach access on pages 56-67 and continues to rank the improvement of beach access as a high priority for the state.

North Carolina

The North Carolina Shore & Beach Preservation Association (NCSBPA) and North Carolina Division of Coastal Management (NCDCM) announced in November 2002 a joint initiative to fully map all of North Carolina's public beach accessways. This information, which includes all public access sites (state, federal and locally funded), is now available on DCM's website. This interactive online Public Beach and Waterfront Access site locator provides a wealth of information on over 550 beach access sites in North Carolina including: amenities (restrooms, showers, etc.), parking, directions, and a site photo. The public access sites are grouped into four main types: regional, neighborhood, local, and urban waterfront.

DCM continues to add access sites every year. Since 1981, over 288 public access sites have been constructed at a cost of $19.6 million ($11.6 million state/federal and $8 million local funds). During 2005, DCM enhanced public access to public beaches and coastal waters through $1.4 million in grants for 21 projects in 15 local communities for public access projects. The grants help pay for a variety of projects to improve access to coastal beaches and waters, including walkways, dune crossovers, restrooms, parking areas and piers.

Oregon

The Oregon Coastal Management Program (OCMP) and the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department (OPRD) completed the Oregon Coastal Access Information System (now the Oregon Coastal Atlas), an interactive beach access website, in July 2000. It includes 651 known ocean beach access locations, most of which are protected as official inventoried sites. This figure translates to nearly one access point per one-half mile of Oregon’s 362 miles of ocean shoreline. The Web site allows users to view ground photos of access sites and provides information on location, path to beach, parking, landforms (e.g., bluffs, dunes, wetlands, forests, bays), man-made features (e.g., lighthouses, bridges, jetties, marinas), and recreational activities, including surfing, at each access site. It also provides orthophotography for the entire Oregon coast. Beach access photos and maps are also available via the Beach Water Quality Monitoring links.

OCMP is currently working on a comprehensive update to the coastal access inventory, which will expand the list of sites to include coastal estuaries, and provide more complete data and photos for beach access sites in a Web-based mapping system. The inventory will include everything from state parks with facilities such as parking lots and restrooms to small scale access points. The inventory will also include coastal access points that are not beaches, such as boat launching sites. These findings will be included on the Oregon Coastal Atlas site once the update is completed.

Texas

Between pedestrian and vehicle access, Texas had approximately 360 public coastal access sites. This corresponds to about one public access site for every mile of shoreline. Information about Texas coastal access sites is available on the General Land Office (GLO) Web site. The Texas Beach and Bay Access Guide, 2nd Edition, allows users to locate a variety of public access sites, coastal state parks, and recreational areas along the Texas Coast. This guide highlights the five areas that make up the Texas Coast: Southeast Texas, Houston-Galveston, Golden Crescent, Coastal Bend, and the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Each section provides a brief description of the primary recreation activities of each county, and includes location maps and recreational grids. The maps show the general location of marinas, county/state/federal parks, boat ramps, and areas of recreational interest. The recreational grids provide information about available activities such as fishing, swimming, and picnicking, and amenities such as boat ramps and facilities that are accessible to the disabled. Phone numbers are also provided, so that users can call ahead to get complete directions and any updates to site conditions.

A new resource unveiled in 2009 is TexasBeachAccess.org, a website that allows you to:


Washington

Washington’s Department of Ecology’s Beach Environmental Assessment, Communication, and Health (BEACH) Program has recently released the Washington Marine Shoreline Public Access Project. This GIS project identifies the ownership, location and length of all public marine shoreline in the state of Washington. In addition, the database combines information from the Department of Natural Resource’s ShoreZone classification project, answering in-depth spatial questions about the distribution of biological communities, geological features, and anthropogenic development amongst public and private shoreline. The database is available to the public on the Department of Ecology’s GIS data download Web page. The updated public access GIS database information indicates that there are approximately 50% more access points (1113) than reported in a 1985 survey. The Department of Ecology is currently attempting to capture all publicly available shoreline. New public access sites are added to the inventory as information becomes available.

The Department of Ecology also has a new Washington Coastal Atlas available, which provides expanded coverage of the Pacific Ocean coast, as well as features such as:

  • Aerial vertical photography: 1940s coverage of selected areas, and 1991-97 coverage of all of western Washington
  • Coastal aerial oblique photos from Ecology's 1976-77, 1992-97, and 2000-02 series. A new series of photos were taken in 2006 and are now available.
  • Mapping of wetlands, drift cells, slope stability, various regulated features, and other items, and background imagery such as nautical charts, USGS topo maps, plus historic estuary mapping


The Department of Ecology will also incorporate additional public access information into the Washington Coastal Atlas. A searchable Web tool based on the recently completed public access database will allow the public, local governments, state agencies and other interested users to search for access maps and descriptions of publicly accessible shorelines throughout Washington.

Wisconsin

A great new online coastal access resource is University of Wisconsin Sea Grant's Wisconsin Coastal Guide. From this site you can click on "Beaches" and then a particular beach to get a map and for many locations a 360 degree panorama.

As part of establishing a comprehensive beach monitoring program, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources hired field staff who drove the entire coast of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior searching for and visiting beaches. They identified 173 public beaches along the two lakes, and staff literally walked the coast using global positioning system (GPS) and geographic information system (GIS) technologies to geo-locate each beach. County maps showing the location of each beach were developed. The maps identify coastal recreation waters, points of access by the public, length of beach, and possible sources of pollution.

As part of its role in providing Coastal Performance Measurements to the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Wisconsin Coastal Management Program is working to compile a comprehensive coastal access database.

Each spring the WCMP awards matching grants to improve public access. Local units of governments in the 15 coastal counties, state agencies, tribal governments, regional planning commissions, universities, colleges, technical schools, and nonprofit organizations are all eligible. A request for proposals is made in late fall each year. Eligible public access projects include construction or improvement of walkways, fishing piers, viewing decks and waterfront parks, and the restoration of historic buildings. Land may be purchased for waterfront public access and preservation using these grants. Public access project applications receive higher priority if they include an educational or environmental protection component.

Statewide Reform Efforts

Florida

The state of Florida is currently attempting to apply the public trust doctrine to expand public beach access throughout the state. Unfortunately, no perfect method for doing this yet exists and the law is currently being applied on a case-by-case basis. Litigation has also been used in attempts to apply the customary use doctrine and prescriptive easements. However, these cases are rarely successful and when they are, they are only applied to the specific situation under review. Based on Florida’s case law, there does not seem to be a high likelihood of the expansion of the public trust doctrine, or any other law, to cover the dry sand beach in the foreseeable future.

An excellent summary of beach access policy and case law in Florida is Sand for the People: The Continuing Controversy Over Public Access to Florida’s Beaches, by Erika Kranz, which appeared in the The Florida Bar Journal, June, 2009 Volume 83, No. 6. Here is an excerpt from the article’s conclusion:

“Given the importance of Florida’s beaches to the state’s tourism-based economy, ensuring public access to this sandy asset is essential. Numerous legal tools are available that might provide more populist alternatives to Florida’s beach privatization trend, though no single existing tool has the capacity for broad utility in preserving public access to the state’s beaches.

The state finds itself in a very tough place in its effort to preserve public access to one of its most valuable resources. Given Florida’s coastal access law today, the state is currently without any particularly effective tools to provide its citizens and visitors lasting access to its beaches. Florida’s best chance for a broadly applicable tool for beach access is to follow Oregon’s lead by broadening the customary use doctrine. Without such measures, the state and private property owners will likely be subjected to imperfect and expensive case-by-case litigation, a strategy too time consuming and expensive for the state to sustain over time.


A recent point of light, however, comes from the Florida Supreme Court’s decision to protect public access to beaches created through publicly funded beach nourishment projects, even if the beaches were privately owned prior to the project. The court cited that it is the state’s constitutional duty to protect Florida’s beaches.

The case, Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and was heard in late 2009 with a decision rendered in 2010 in favor of the Public Trust Doctrine and public beach access.

Several Surfrider Foundation chapters in Florida, along with others interested in a establishing a comprehensive set of laws to protect citizen's access to public beaches have drafted a Florida Open Beaches Act that they hope to have adopted by the Florida legislature. More information on their efforts can be found here.

Hawaii

Hawaii’s statewide beach access policies provide all land up to the line of vegetation free for public use. In recent years, however, intensifying public controversy has focused on the ongoing loss of beaches statewide resulting from widespread use of induced vegetation by landowners and surveyors to manipulate the shoreline further makai (seaward) in order to justify building closer to the ocean. This not only invades public beach and blocks public access, but also paves the way to the eventual erosion and loss of the beach, ironically to the detriment of the landowner as well as the public.

In October 2006, the Hawaii Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, issued a ruling strongly reaffirming that the shoreline in Hawaii extends to “the highest reach of the highest wash of the waves," and rejecting the use of artificially planted vegetation to determine the shoreline. The court also clarified the role of the "vegetation line" and "debris line" as indicators of the shoreline. Contrary to the state's and landowner's interpretation of legal precedent, the court ruled that the vegetation line trumps the debris line only when the vegetation line lies more “mauka" (inland) than the debris line and furthers the public policy of extending to public ownership and use "as much of Hawaii's shoreline as is reasonably possible."

Read the court's decision here.

Hawaii Revised Statutes sec. 115 was passed in 1974 to protect the public's right to access the beach and inland area. Even at that time lawmakers recognized that "development pressures threaten to close off public access to the shoreline." Unfortunately, while those pressures have continued to increase, the ability to enforce these rights has not. In 2009 legislation was introduced to help enforce beach access in Hawaii by giving residents the right to enforce public access rights directly by adding a citizen suit provision to the state law. SB1088 would help prevent property owners from unnecessarily obstructing beach access by amending the definition of obstruction for access to public property and creating a private right of action for a person to enforce the prohibition of obstruction. The status of SB1088 is currently pending.

Case Studies – Current Access Issues

Montauk, NY

A few years ago, eight surfers, known as “the Montauk Eight,” were hauled out of the water at Montauk Point State Park and ticketed by the New York State Park Police. The eight tickets, which were based on a statute prohibiting swimming aids, were all dismissed by an East Hampton judge, who stated that the prohibition against swimming off Montauk Point did not extend to surfing. At first, park officials vowed to continue enforcing the ban.

The decision came to Mr. Ron Foley, director of the Long Island region of state parks, in January 2009. He and his staff “mulled it over for some time,” and in the end, the decision was made to officially open Montauk Point to surfing from December 16 to March 31. A couple of years earlier, the department lifted a prohibition at the decommissioned Camp Hero military base adjoining the park, and several years before that, it formalized the designation of surfing areas at Robert Moses State Park after a prolonged campaign by area surfers. Mr. Foley has continued to respond by opening more beaches to surfing and having authorities quietly phase out the practice of ticketing surfers. As of August 25, 2009, only one summons had been given to a surfer that year. The surfer was cited for improperly using a fishing license to access a fishing area with his surfboard.

The struggle still continues, however, as fishermen lobby to protect their fishing spots and the willingness of park officials to accommodate surfers reaches its end. Parks authorities say they are not considering lifting the prohibition against surfing at Montauk Point during the spring, summer and fall, arguing that that is prime fishing season. They will also continue ticketing surfers in areas marked with “no surfing” signs, although, thanks to the Montauk Eight, they will have to find a new statute to do so under.

For articles covering this issue see here and here.

More from a legal perspective.

The Surfrider Foundation Eastern Long Island Chapter has a Montauk State Park Access Campaign.

Outer Banks, NC

Many of the Outer Banks beaches are open to beach driving at least part of the year, with some restrictions. Most towns permit beach driving between approximately Oct. 1 and April 30. This is primarily to protect bird and sea turtle nests from vehicular traffic during their nesting season. Some beaches have year-round access, however.

North Carolina’s Cape Hatteras National Seashore is one location that generally allows beach driving year-round. In a recent attempt to protect threatened species and their habitats, the National Park Service (NPS) is undertaking a process to develop future rules for driving at Hatteras that may limit off-road vehicle (ORV) access. According to the NPS, the process will take at least three years to complete. Additionally, the subject is highly controversial, which may cause further delays. Some scientists believe that many species could be eliminated from the Seashore in that time.

In July 2007 U.S. District Judge Terrence W. Boyle issued an order which stated that because Cape Hatteras National Seashore did not have regulations to govern ORV traffic, operating a vehicle on the seashore "without prior authority" was punishable by fines up to $5,000 and six months in prison. In response, a spokesperson for Cape Hatteras stated that with the exception of isolated closures for natural resource protection and pedestrian safety, ORV traffic would be allowed on the seashore while attorneys for the National Park Service reviewed the court order.

In October 2007, the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) filed a suit designed to require the Park Service to implement a plan to manage beach driving while also protecting the resources of the region. The goal is to get the Park Service to develop a management plan that will continue to allow access to Hatteras by vehicle, but will control ORV use in order to protect the wildlife, safety and overall environment of the Outer Banks. Four months later, SELC, along with Defenders of Wildlife and the National Audubon Society asked a federal judge to limit beach driving on approximately 12 percent of the seashore identified by Park Service scientists as being the most critical to nesting shorebirds. SELC asked the judge to halt driving on this portion of beach pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The Outer Banks Chapter of Surfrider Foundation is one of the parties working to achieve a balanced resolution of the beach driving issue at Cape Hatteras National Seashore. The chapter has issued the following statement:

“The Outer Banks Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation recognizes the unique ecological, recreational and economic value of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. We further recognize that beaches are a public resource and should be held in the public trust for their preservation. We understand that for decades the Park Service has allowed access to Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches by Off Road Vehicles (ORV) with minimal restriction or oversight and that if not regulated correctly ORV use may detrimentally affect migratory species that nest in the area. The Outer Banks Chapter supports beach preservation and protection efforts, but feels that a temporary and or permanent ban on ORV access to these beaches could have an immediate detrimental impact on the Outer Banks economy, and severely limit public access to groups that appreciate, use, and support the protection of these coastal resources. We believe that a balance between access and preservation can be achieved.

It is difficult for one that has not spent significant time on the Outer Banks to consider how limited access to beaches would become without ORV use, access that is the very reason that people from all over the world come to the Outer Banks to visit. In our small community where much of the oceanfront has been developed by homes, this small stretch of National Park is truly one of the last protected places to enjoy the unique resources on Hatteras Island. Hatteras Island offers world class surfing and fishing, much of which can be attributed to its remote location that is accessible only by ORVs. At this time the Outer Banks Chapter of Surfrider Foundation believes that allowing continued access with improved management of ORV use to the National Seashore is the optimal solution for this area.

The Outer Banks Chapter implores all parties involved in this issue to find a balance between access, protection and preservation. We recommend managing access of these areas through a combination of permitting, limiting the number of vehicles, and closures when necessary to protect the migratory species that use this area seasonally. The Outer Banks Chapter of Surfrider Foundation supports protection and preservation, and in this unique situation does support the reasonable use of Off Road Vehicles to allow public access this area.”


A tentative agreement settling the lawsuit was announced on April 16, 2008. The settlement allows driving on large areas of beach, but seasonally restricts vehicle use in several spots popular with both birds and fishermen. The settlement detailed areas to be restricted in 2008 to protect bird and turtle nesting areas. Among its requirements: bird nesting areas can't be made smaller to accommodate vehicles if erosion cuts off vehicle access. The park service, by March 15 of each year, must mark nesting areas on Bodie Island Spit, Cape Point, South Beach, Hatteras Spit, North Ocracoke and Ocracoke South Point. The park service must also set aside specific protection buffers around nesting areas for plover, the least tern, the oystercatcher and other waterbirds. The vehicle buffer is 1,000 meters for plover chicks, the highest level of protection. Officials also have the authority to expand the protected areas if they believe there has been vandalism of fencing, nests or plants. To protect turtles, the park service must close beaches to night driving between of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. from May 1 to Sept. 15 and allow night driving only under educational permits between Sept. 16 and Nov. 15. On April 30, 2008 Judge Boyle approved the settlement (Consent Decree) after receiving additional information from Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray.

In June 2008 legislation was introduced in Congress to nullify the consent decree and reinstate the interim plan on ORV use that previously existed (see here and here). The bill, which was supported by ORV access advocates, was ultimately opposed by the National Park Service and rejected by a U.S. Senate committee. The deputy director of the National Park Service testified before Congress in September 2008 stating that “the consent decree will accomplish [the] objective” of allowing public use and access to the national seashore’s beaches to the greatest extent possible while still protecting the park’s wildlife “better than the original 2007 Interim Management Strategy.”

Despite this testimony, a similar bill to invalidate the consent decree and resort back to the less effective interim management strategy was re-introduced in August 2009.

Information about ORV management alternatives being considered by the NPS for Cape Hatteras National Seashore is available to the public and through the PEPC website, under ORV Management Plan project.

A good source for current information on the beach access situation at Cape Hatteras National Seashore beaches is the Beach Access Issues page from Island Free Press.

Chicago, IL

Thanks in part to Surfrider Foundation’s Lake Michigan and Chicago chapters, Chicago’s beaches are officially open to surfing! After months of letter writing, emails, phone calls and meetings by activists, surfing is now officially legal at four beaches in the City of Chicago.

Until recently, outdated laws forbidding the use of flotation devices in the city’s waterways caused surfers to run the risk of a $500 fine or even arrest every time they paddled out.

According to sources, local surfer and musician Jack Flynn was arrested for surfing a Chicago swell. He was taken to jail where he spent the night in his wetsuit next to cellmates who'd just robbed a bank with AK-47s.

Tired of having to travel to other parts of the Great Lakes to legally catch waves and avoid jail time or hefty fines, a group of surfers sent Chicago's Park District a proposal requesting that surfing be allowed at five of the city’s beaches. The December 2008 proposal asked that surfing be allowed seasonally (Memorial Day to Labor Day) at four of the city's beaches and year-round at a fifth beach. The Surfrider Lake Michigan Chapter along with many others got involved to help make the local surf communities’ voice heard.

Finally, in June 2009, Chicago Park District's governing board allowed the city superintendent to lift the decades-old ban on flotation devices. Four Chicago beaches are now open to surfing: Osterman and Rainbow Beach during the off-season months (Labor Day to Memorial Day), and Montrose Ave. Beach and 57th St. Beach year round.

A TIME Magazine article called this a victory in “the war to extend surfing's influence across the country.”

Information on where you can surf in Chicago and tips for freshwater surfing can be found here.

More information on the new Chicago surfing rules can be found here.

Latigo Beach, Malibu, CA

Over the past several years, the West Los Angeles/Malibu (WLAM) Chapter of Surfrider has been working with homeowner representatives at Latigo Beach to restore the public access path to the popular surf break and beach. A very contentious issue ten years ago, the situation at Latigo became more complicated in the summer of 2004, when Cal Trans abandoned ownership of the road and the right-of-way easement of Latigo Shore Drive. At present, the road is now private, and the only available parking is on the Pacific Coast Highway. The only public access route is now much further south of the surfing area, and requires a long walk north along the shore across dangerous concrete and brick rip-rap with metal rebar. During high tide and major storm events, the point is totally inaccessible by foot. Latigo Beach homeowners have shown their willingness to work with Surfrider to come up with a plan that will provide an alternate access route. The WLAM Chapter is presently meeting with the various homeowners associations and hopes to draft an agreeable and implementable solution that will restore the public access path along the bluff top down to the break for safe public access for all at Latigo Beach.

Gaviota Coast, Southern California

The approximately 31,000-acre Gaviota Coast, sandwiched between Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Barbara Channel, is an internationally celebrated bastion of biodiversity, a vital North American wildlife corridor, and a near-extinct reminder of how Southern California once looked. Threats of development along the unspoiled coast have been ongoing for years and according to the Santa Barbara County’s Planning department, development projects are in the works for nearly 30 percent of the region. Along with numerous other organizations, the Santa Barbara Chapter of Surfrider Foundation has been involved in a multi-year struggle to limit development and protect coastal access along several areas of California’s Gaviota Coast.

The most well-publicized project is a 72-mansion development plan for the historic Santa Barbara Ranch, more commonly known as Naples. The Santa Barbara Ranch Project consists of a residential estate development on the Gaviota coast, two miles west of the City of Goleta. The Santa Barbara Chapter of Surfrider is working in a coalition with five other environmental groups to move all development at Naples to an inland portion out of the viewshed. Two basic alternatives are proposed: a 54-unit planned development on the 485-acre Santa Barbara Ranch and a 72-unit planned development encompassing Santa Barbara Ranch plus the adjacent 2,769-acre Dos Pueblos Ranch. Both alternatives include development of an equestrian center, agricultural support facilities, an employee duplex, public amenities (including access road, parking and restroom, hiking, biking, equestrian trails near the coastal bluff, an educational kiosk and a coastal access stair structure), and creation of conservation easements permanently protecting agricultural uses and open space. The chapter is currently conducting a Naples trail user survey to help protect public access.

The Makar Property on the Gaviota Coast is another area the Santa Barbara Chapter of Surfrider is working to protect. After defeating the construction of a golf course on the former ARCO property during a 10-year battle, the Chapter has retained a consultant and a law firm and are in negotiations with a major land conservation agency to convince the owner of that property to sell it for permanent protection.

On April 14, 2009 Surfrider, along with the Gaviota Coast Conservancy, won a key battle against the build-out of open space when the judge voided a recent controversial annexation of quintessential Gaviota land into the Goleta Water District (GWD).

The latest development in this long-running struggle to preserve the Gaviota Coast is the production of a movie The Twenty - a Surfrider Foundation Film to show the importance of preservation of this beautiful, unique & diverse coastline. Further objectives are to:

  • Create the Gaviota Coast Legal Defense Fund to support ongoing legal expenses for preservation
  • Launch “$20 for 20 Miles” grassroots fundraising campaign for permanent preservation of the Gaviota Coast
  • Create a groundswell of support of “first responders” who will mobilize to block development (SB County Supervisors and Coastal Commission)


For a comprehensive article listing all the development threats (at the time the article was written) to the Gaviota Coast, see here.

For additional information on the Gaviota Coast, check out these sites:


Conclusions

Our nation’s coasts are a unique resource. They provide ecological, recreational, economic and aesthetic opportunities that are found nowhere else. Beach access is an important aspect in determining the quality of our nations coasts. In order to use and enjoy this resource, people must be able to get to it. The public trust doctrine declares the beach as a free public resource, or trust. At both the national and state levels there are many methods for protecting the public’s rights to access this resource. However, as our nation’s coasts become more developed, people are losing their ability to exercise their right to free access.

States such as Oregon and Texas have gone to great lengths to help secure these rights for all and prevent the loss of their coastline to those who wish to privatize their land. However, the protection of this resource is an ongoing task, and there are constant threats and attempts to weaken public rights. Limited government resources and the large volume of other issues that compete for these resources make the protection of beach access a constant struggle. This pressure is especially apparent during tough economic times. Without strong efforts by the public, there is the potential that these rights may fall to the power of developers and coastal property owners who seek to claim this public trust as their own. However, the public is far from powerless. Initiatives taken by citizens in many states have helped to protect or even open up areas of the coastline for the public’s use and enjoyment.

The most important thing the public can do to prevent the loss of their ability to access the beach is to empower themselves through education. By becoming aware of their state’s beach access policies and local public access issues, citizens can take action to fully exercise their rights and prevent the loss of their shoreline. Many states have excellent publicly-available resources that provide information, including state policies, lists of beaches, information on available amenities and recreational opportunities, and maps and guides for all publicly accessible coastline in the state.

Beach access is a central component of Surfrider Foundation’s mission. We promote low-impact, universal beach access, while recognizing the importance of balancing the ecological integrity of the shoreline with the opportunity for optimized beach access for all recreational user groups. In Surfrider Foundation's past 28 years of working towards protection and enjoyment of our coastlines, we have amassed a vast and rich history of beach access campaigns and victories.

Get involved with Surfrider Foundation and help protect your right to access our nation’s beaches!


This article is part of a series on Beach Access looking at policies, laws, regulations and conditions which can affect the public's ability to access the coast.

For information about laws, policies and conditions impacting beach access in a specific state, please visit Surfrider's State of the Beach report to find the State Report for that state, and click on the "Beach Access" indicator link.