When my wife and I were on our honeymoon in St. Lucia, I was surprised to learn that the country prohibited the privatization of beaches. Caribbean resort hotels were of course free to control the all of the property leading up to the beach. And they could, for example, rent you a privately-owned beach chair or privately-owned towel to stake your temporary claim there. But the beaches themselves — all of them — were public property.
This makes sense, of course, and I'm glad that a small Caribbean country was able to keep control of such precious land, in the face of the overwhelming colonial tourism industry. But that's a topic for another time.
Here in the US, coastal states each have their own rules in place for who can or cannot own a beach. While some states prohibit ownership entirely, the rest of them are largely agreed that property lines must be drawn at the high tide line. This, too, makes sense. For one thing, waterways have typically followed different rules than land ownership. It's also logistically difficult for an individual to claim private ownership of a transitive section of ocean.
But that certainly didn't stop the early American colonial settlers from trying. As the Boston Globe explains:
Thanks to the "Colonial Ordinances of 1641-1647," which allowed for the building of private wharves to bolster maritime trade, private citizens in Massachusetts and Maine can own land all the way to the low-tide line, allowing them to exclude the public from the intertidal zone, the area between the high and low tide lines that spends much of the day underwater. In short, the ordinances allowed not only the creation of private beaches, but the unprecedented ownership of the sea itself.
Under the Massachusetts interpretation of the Public Trust Doctrine, a state law known as Chapter 91, the public can access "private tidelands" for only three purposes: "fishing, fowling, and navigation." When it was formalized in 1866, Chapter 91 was meant to protect how the public customarily used the sea. But times have changed
There are plenty of these weird old laws still on the books, perhaps because most politicians aren't thinking about repealing them. But sometimes they come into play — as the Globe explains, there was indeed a court case in the 20th century where someone sued over their right to swim in private tidelands, and the court ruled that such activity was only allowed if the swimmer's feet never touched the ocean floor, because then they would be trespassing on private property.
Some policymakers are trying to change this antiquated law, by amending the text to add "recreation" as a permissible activity alongside fishing, fowling, and navigation. Really. That's it. One word, and it's still controversial. Even if this proposals passes, I wouldn't be surprised if it leads to someone demanding financial reparations for the square footage that was stolen from their property by moving the property line up to the high tide line.
Can a single word change our restrictive beach laws? [Billy Baker / The Boston Globe]
Image: Public Domain via PixaHive