Whose Beach? Our Beach: A Readers’ Guide to Shoreline Access

September 1, 2017 | 4 min read

It’s the waning days of summer, you’ve got your towel, your beach read, your canned rosé in an insulated Angry Birds lunchbox you stole from your child. But the question remains: where to set up camp?

Beaches are getting awful crowded these days, and “beach-spreading” is on the rise; writer Amy Rosenberg of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the canopy-and-BBQ-grill-wielding beach spreaders’ main victims are the “towel-and-a-book minimalists” (her delightful coinage).

Thus, while trying to avoid the point end of someone else’s beach umbrella, you may be jonesing for a little more undisturbed quiet. What can you do if you aren’t New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who famously closed all the state beaches on the beachiest of beach weekends, July 4, citing budget problems, and was subsequently photographed enjoying a beautiful state beach, Gilligan’s Island-style, with just sand, surf, and his nuclear family.

But just as no man is an island, no beach is totally “owned” by someone. Even the famous stars in Malibu, with their yards fronting the beach, can’t yell, “Get off my beach-lawn”—although they’ve tried. Yes, part of that beach belongs to you, Joan Q. Public.

Many people don’t know this, but pretty much every state has at least some version of California’s Public Trust Doctrine that codifies the public’s free access to the beach. California’s doctrine in fact decrees that there is no such thing as a private beach. Even walking in front of, say, Jennifer Aniston’s house (we assume she lives on the beach), there will still be a strip of sand that his public, and often, way more than a strip (often, owners have to grant easements—i.e., more beach!—when they do things like overbuild).

I’ll use California’s beaches as an example because they are plentiful and because it’s an income inequality issue: Los Angeles, land of the outdoors, ranks a pitiable number 74 (behind Reno Nevada!) for access to public park space. Compare that to New York City—-skyscraper town—where I live, which comes in at number seven. So what precious public park space there is, is mostly THE BEACH.

Yet many wealthy homeowners in coastal areas (but particularly wealthy areas like Malibu) actively want to mislead you into thinking you’re the one trespassing  by deploying things like NO TRESPASSING and NO PARKING signs, posting intimidating guards and co-opting local police. I remember doing a writers’ residency where a walk along the seashore was a welcome way to end the day. But one day when I came around a bend that was usually underwater during high tide, I was surprised to see a guard. She told me I wasn’t allowed to walk any further. There was also a huge sign saying the beach belonged to a ranch.

This was not true, I know now. In that state, the beach was public up to the high tide line, and so at low tide, there was a nice piece of beach for me to read on. Even if I hadn’t been aware of these laws, “wet sand” is almost always considered public beach.

Most people are like me and don’t know that there’s a lot of beach out there, waiting for your towel and book. Thanks to organizations like LA Urban Rangers, who lead urban “safaris” and otherwise help educate the public about their rights of access, the tide is turning, so to speak, and the public is learning what they have been missing—or been illegally shooed away from—for years or decades. Most recently, this guy, a billionaire, just lost his case trying to keep one of the prettiest beaches in Northern California all to himself when he didn’t even live on the property.

So how to you figure out what’s what?

WET SAND: “is generally considered public land and the state holds it in ‘trust’ for the public benefit,” according to Angela Howe, Legal Director of the Surfrider Foundation. After that, it’s a specific state issue. You can check out Beachapedia for the laws in your particular coastal state.

Similar to wet sand, you will most likely be on a public beach if you pack your book and towel into a boat, a kayak, or a Huck Finn-type raft. According to Ms. Romans: If you arrive at a beach via boat or from the ocean side, you are staying within the public trust lands.

Basically, before you go, brush up on your state’s laws.

Know your rights, but (a) keep in mind that even being right doesn’t always win you the day; and (b) there’ve also been situations where the guards will call the police who will then show up and be unfamiliar with terms like “mean high tide line” and “public access.”

Some beaches even have an app that can help you with access (and will have official documents you can show the guards/cops), e.g., Our Malibu Beaches, which  comes with both iOS and Android versions.

There is also the YourCoast App that the California Coastal Commission created, and a print California Coastal Access Guide.

Okay: beach read, check; towel, check; rosé, check.

But what if you feel bad lounging and reading on the beach in front of some billionaire’s house while his wide-eyed family stares at you? Well consider, besides the fact that people like David Geffen had promised to build a public access path to the Malibu beach next to his property in return for a remodeling permit—back in 1983!—and instead he has been spending all this time trying to keep people from lawfully accessing what has been acerbically known as “Billionaire’s Beach.” Spending money keeping people from a public beach is a particular crime in an urban area that has such little access to public green space—this small loss of privacy is a well compensated tradeoff for the loveliness and the guarantee of non-development that accrues to one lucky (and rich) enough to live in a house that abuts a public park. Can you imagine if rich New Yorkers tried to block access to Central Park with boulders (yes, someone did that to hide a beach access point) or complained about the noise from Shakespeare in the Park?

In Florida, when the state deposited tons of new sand on eroding shorelines, they declared this new, replenished land government property, and therefore public. It makes sense; we all have to share the consequences of our climate-change and rising sea levels, why not enjoy the beaches that our taxes pay to shore up?

It’s your beach, people. Grab your book and get beach-reading.

Image Credit: Flickr/Anne Adrian.

is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Nation, Slate, Salon, Guernica, Poets & Writers, and The Guardian. Her novel, The Evening Hero, is forthcoming with Simon & Schuster (May 2022). She teaches fiction at Columbia and shares a hometown with Bob Dylan.

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