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Document Type

Article

Abstract

In this paper, I will examine three established, or at least commonly claimed, rights of coastal (littoral) property owners in the United States: (1) the right to receive sediments seaward of the mean high-water line deposited by accretions and ownership of new land uncovered by relictions, (2) the right to exclusive use of their dry sand property, and (3) the right to build what they wish on their oceanfront lot. Each of these asserted “rights” at times butts heads with laws designed to preserve and protect the public’s right to enjoy the coast and the ocean, including the public trust doctrine, environmental statutes, and zoning regulations. Taking each of these property claims in turn, my goal is to see who, if anybody, is winning the battle between property owners and the general public for the use of littoral zones. Does the answer vary with location? What factors are giving the winner the upper hand? When these public and private rights are at odds, can the two be reconciled in a manner that respects the owner’s desires while concomitantly maintaining public utility, or is this a fruitless endeavor because the two are diametrically opposed? In what respects does the law need to be clarified to potentially obviate issues? Starting with “It’s All Mine,” I will explore how the phenomena of accretion, dereliction, and avulsion, both natural and artificial, affect the extent of an owner’s title to his or her coastal lot. I will also extensively discuss a fairly recent United States Supreme Court case, Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, that has important ramifications for determining the boundary of an owner’s littoral lot. Next, with “Stay Off,” I will examine how different states have found or created public access and use rights over private littoral property and dealt with issues arising from owners’ assertions of exclusivity. Lastly, under “Let Me Do What I Please,” I will look at how zoning ordinances and environmental laws, as well as condemnation, have been used in different states to limit an owner’s ability to build certain structures on their lots—from buildings to sea walls and piers— for the benefit of the general public. In what cases have the courts found the government went too far in restricting the owner’s use of his or her littoral property, and in what cases have they said the danger to the environment or the public’s entitled use outweighed the owner’s desire to construct what he or she wishes? Each of these disputes has important political, economic, and social implications because it pits a select group of private property owners, who are often wealthy and influential, against the general public, whose desire to be near the ocean is steadily growing. On a grander scale, these legal issues highlight the continuing debate over how to best utilize our natural resources and the corresponding struggle for control.

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