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Coastal Access Toolkit
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Common Law & Statutes
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What is the Public Trust Doctrine?

The Public Trust Doctrine is a common law doctrine of property law which establishes certain public rights to access and use navigable waters and waters subject to the ebb and flow of tides. The doctrine has its roots in Roman civil law and English common law and is premised on the fact that such waters and shores have been used as common areas for fishing, commerce and navigation.

The land and waters subject to public trust rights are typically tidal and are marked by either a mean low water line or mean high water line. Variances depend upon state common law, regulation and court rulings. New Jersey is a mean high water line state and this line has been established using historic cycles for the entire New Jersey coastline. The public’s rights to use lands seaward of the mean high water line are held in trust by the state as owner and trustee.

What types of coastal lands are covered by the Public Trust Doctrine in New Jersey?

  • Tidelands/riparian lands and their shores
  • Submerged lands beneath oceans and tidal rivers and streams
  • Filled lands that were formerly flowed by the tide
  • Some dry sand areas above the mean high water line
    • New Jersey Supreme Court has held that some stretches of dry sand above the mean high water line are subject to certain rights of access to and use by the public, in order to fully enjoy lands subject to public trust rights. The amount of dry sand varies depending on a consideration of factors established in the NJ Supreme Court Case Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Association, 95 N.J. 306 (1984).

      Considerations include:

      • Location of the dry sand area
      • Extent and availability of surrounding publicly-owned upland sand area
      • Nature and extent of the public demand
      • Usage of the upland sand by the owner

What rights does the public have to access Public Trust lands?

In New Jersey, coastal access is the ability of all to pass physically (linear and perpendicular access) and visually to, from and along tidal waterways and shores. Public access areas should encourage the public to use coastal areas by providing adequate amenities such as parking, and must not discourage users by charging inappropriate fees.

Examples of coastal access

  • Linear / Lateral Access- the ability to walk on the beach along the shoreline
  • Perpendicular Access- ability to reach tidal waterways and their shores through easements across private property
  • Visual Access- in certain circumstances, the ability of the public to view the coast

Case Studies

See examples of cases pertaining to the Public Trust Doctrine

Where can I find more information?

Public Access in New Jersey: The Public Trust Doctrine and Practical Steps to Enhance Public Access (NJDEP Coastal Management Program)

Putting the Public Trust Doctrine to Work, 2nd Edition (Coastal States Organization)

Research projects of Bonnie McCay, Ph.D., an Environmental Anthropologist who specializes in studying marine fisheries and fishing-dependent communities.