11-2016 NEWS & ANALYSIS 46 ELR 10971
Whose Coast Is
the Public’s Right
to Access the
by Lee A. Kaplan
Lee A. Kaplan received his J.D. from UCLA
School of Law in May 2016. He is a law clerk at
Richards, Watson & Gershon in Los Angeles.
e public trust doctrine provides that a state holds its
tidelands, submerged lands, and navigable waters in
trust for the benet of the general public. California has
codied the principles of this doctrine through various
statutes, including the California Coastal Act of 1976.
However, as climate change drives increased sea-level rise
and erosion along California’s coast, landowners have
sought to protect their property with hard armoring
structures that impede coastal access and cause the sea to
swallow previously accessible public beaches. is raises
the issue of who should bear the burden of the inevitable
property losses resulting from sea-level rise: private land-
owners, or the general public. is Article explores the
legal issues surrounding coastal armoring in California,
including the pending case of
Commission, which could have broad implications for
coastal armoring and access rights in California.
You can travel the world, but nothing comes close to the
Abutting the Pacic Ocean, California is home to some
of t he most beautiful beaches and coastal landscapes on
earth. Some may be surprised to learn that all 1,200 miles
of California’s famed coastline are legally open to the pub-
lic, at least in theory.2 e public trust doctrine, which has
its origins in Roman law and English common law, pro-
vides that the state holds its tidelands, submerged lands,
and navigable waters in trust for the benet of the general
public, ensuring the public’s right to access these areas.3
California legislators have embraced the public trust doc-
trine, arming it through provisions in the state constitu-
tion4 as well as in various state statutes, most notably in the
California Coasta l Act of 1976.5
California has been a leader in developing the public
trust doctrine and promoting the public’s right to access
the shoreline.6 However, the public’s ability to recognize
its right to access has come under threat in various ways.
Legally, al l land below the mean high tide line along the
California coast is state land and should be easily acces-
sible by members of the public.7 However, wea lthy own-
ers of beachfront property along the coast have gone to
great lengths to impede public access. Landowners have
been known to hire private security guards, post mislead-
ing signs, erect fences, and lobby against public transpor-
tation in order to discourage people from accessing the
public tidelands adjacent to their homes.8 While the state’s
tidelands are legally open to all, many of California’s most
beautiful beaches and coastal habitats have been eectively
closed to the public due to the eorts of beachfront prop-
ere are many challenges inherent to promoting and
preserving the public’s right to enjoy coastal lands, but
the single greatest threat to public access may be the one
posed by global warming and the resultant sea-level rise
and erosion already altering the topography of the Califor-
nia coast.9 Climate change has driven an alarming increase
in sea level over the course of t he past centur y.10 Globally,
the average rate of sea-level rise has been about 1-2 cen-
1. K P & S D, C G (Capitol Records 2010).
2. Robert García & Erica Flores Baltodano,
, 2 S. J. C.R. C.L. 143, 179 (2005).
4. C. C. art. X, §4.
5. C. C. C §670; C. P. R. C §30001.5; C. P. R.
6. García & Baltodano, supra note 2, at 179.
7. C. C. C §670.
8. García & Baltodano, supra note 2, at 164-65.
9. Meg Caldwell & Craig Holt Segall, -
, 34 E L.Q.
533, 534 (2007).
10. Id. at 537.
Copyright © 2016 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®, http://www.eli.org, 1-800-433-5120.