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US - Who owns the beach? It depends on state law and tide lines

As Americans flock to beaches this summer, their toes are sinking into some of the most hotly contested real estate in the United States.

It wasn’t always this way. Through the mid-20th century, when the U.S. population was smaller and the coast was still something of a frontier in many states, laissez-faire and absentee coastal landowners tolerated people crossing their beachfront property. Now, however, the coast has filled up. Property owners are much more inclined to seek to exclude an ever-growing population of beachgoers seeking access to less and less beach.

On most U.S. shorelines, the public has a time-honored right to “lateral” access. This means that people can move down the beach along the wet sand between high and low tide – a zone that usually is publicly owned. Waterfront property owners’ control typically stops at the high tide line or, in a very few cases, the low tide line.

But as climate change raises sea levels, property owners are trying to harden their shorelines with sea walls and other types of armoring, squeezing the sandy beach and the public into a shrinking and diminished space.

As director of the Conservation Clinic at the University of Florida College of Law and the Florida Sea Grant Legal Program, and as someone who grew up with sand between my toes, I have studied beach law and policy for most of my career. In my view, the collision between rising seas and coastal development – known as “coastal squeeze” – now represents an existential threat to beaches, and to the public’s ability to reach them.

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