Sea Level Rise Increases Conflict Over Public Access to Private Beaches

When buyers purchase real estate on the beach, they often assume they own the entire stretch of sand from their door to the water’s edge, but that’s not always the case. Property owners in states like California and Florida own the beach up to the point where water laps at their beach at high tide. The public is allowed to walk in the wet sand that emerges between mean high and low tide. States like New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas, on the other hand, allow public access to all beaches.

State laws, however, aren’t always the last word when it comes to beach access. Federal law requires coastal communities to provide public access to beaches that have been restored using federal funds. Public access doesn’t end until a beach is eroded away again. (This article by Thomas Ankerson, director of the Conservation Clinic at the University of Florida College of Law, does a great job of explaining the legal issues surrounding beach access.)

As sea level rise causes more beach erosion, property owners are finding beach walkers ever closer to their back doors. In some communities, this is increasing tension that already existed between property owners who believe they have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their stretch of beach and the public who believe no one should have exclusive right to the sand.

In Florida, the state with the most beaches, battles are breaking out between some beachfront property owners and the public. A recent example is a conflict emerging in Palm Beach in South Florida. According to an article published this week by WPTV, a West Palm Beach TV station, private property owners in the tony resort community are posting poles that tell beachgoers where their private beach starts and warning them not to trespass.

Christine Stapleton, a form Palm Beach Post reporter and beach walker, posted a photo of a pole on Instagram. “Legally, these landowners do own the beach up to the mean high tide line,” she wrote in her post. “And Article X, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution clarifies that the state holds the seaward of the mean high-tide line (MHTL) in trust for the public.”

Stapleton then goes on to question the authorities’ role in allowing private property owners to unilaterally claim a section of the beach that should be open to the public. “So why does the Town of Palm Beach and Florida Department of Environmental Protection allow wealthy landowners to decide the location of the mean high tide line?” she asks. “Why does the town and DEP allow these landowners to decide when a public beach should be closed because of erosion and put up poles declaring the eroded stretch of beach private and claiming ownership?”

Palm Beach’s town manager told WPTV that the property owners need to follow state guidelines when they post poles.

As sea level rise continues, conflict between private property owners and beachgoers is bound to increase. It’s important for real estate buyers and owners to know their rights so they don’t overstep their boundaries and for the public to know where they’re allowed to tread so they don’t trespass. As Christine Stapleton told WPTV, “My feeling is let’s get together and make this work.”

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