Legal questions abound for beach walking, driving

It has been seven months since I launched an informal poll that asks whether people should be allowed to walk across privately owned tidelands as a basic right reserved to the public. The number of respondents has reached nearly 500, and I’d say it is time to retire the poll.

Last July, when I examined the legal implications of the Public Trust Doctrine for a story in the Kitsap Sun, the issue generated 91 lively comments on all sides of the issue. (See the bottom of the story.) Subsequently, I discussed the questions further in Water Ways on July 8, when I launched the poll.

As responses have grown, the percentage of people in each camp has remained nearly the same. In the final count, 62 percent of respondents (301 votes) said the public should be allowed to walk across private tidelands below the high-tide mark.

The remainder was split almost equally between those who believed the public has no right to walk across private tidelands (93 votes) and those who believe the courts should strike a balance, perhaps by allowing people to walk on a lower section of beach when the tide is out (92 votes).

If you haven’t registered your vote in the right column, this will be your last chance, as I’m going to shut down the poll on Saturday.

As I described last year, the Washington State Supreme Court has yet to resolve whether people have a right to walk across private tidelands under the Public Trust Doctrine. As a result, any opinion is somewhat valid at this point.

We know that a person has a legal right, with a few exceptions, to sit in a boat above the beach when the tide comes in. But stepping out of the boat and standing in the water changes the situation. If you wait there until the tide recedes and you are standing on dry land, the situation changes again.

Meanwhile, specific conditions change from beach to beach, because tideland ownership patterns vary greatly. So it will be a challenge for the courts to resolve this question in Washington state. Since the legal issue has been hanging for more than 150 years, who knows if or when we will have a clear answer.

Speaking of unusual situations on the beach, the question of who can walk or drive along the water near Manchester has been the subject of court fights going back at least 20 years — since that’s how long I’ve been writing about them.

The latest court battle brings up a question of surveys: Should resident David Kimble be allowed to have a surveyor mark a driving easement from Hemlock Street to his waterfront property?

The easement itself was agreed upon by neighbors in 1997 to settle a lawsuit about whether driving should be allowed at all. The settlement was a balance between the needs of residents to reach their property and protection of the environment. It was designed to keep traffic on the upper portion of the beach and to limit residents to 12 trips per year.

If you’d like to know more, read about the latest dispute in today’s Kitsap Sun, and follow links in the story for a bit of history. Maybe one day I will create a long list linking to all the stories I have written through the years about walking or driving on Manchester’s beach.

7 thoughts on “Legal questions abound for beach walking, driving

  1. I would add my vote and make it an even 300 if it would let me. I believe we need to emulate Oregon’s beach rights law so people aren’t confused when going from state to state. That said, how do the Indians feel about access to their tidelands?

  2. As former Seattle resident who returned after 20 years in California, I must say the inaccessibility of public shoreline here is disheartening, as are the harsh mandates I’ve heard yelled at residents who dare step a foot over a property line at low tide. I didn’t notice it when I lived here. And that seems to be the general response from locals when I bring it up: “what? big deal.” And they think I’m a rotten Californian for saying so. But I think it IS a big deal. Shoreline and tidelands access is a huge part of what makes the coastline from Oregon down through California so spectacular.

    When I mention to my California friends that we have but tiny swaths and patches of shoreline access here, they are stunned. They envision Seattle and Washington as this endless splendor and bounty of outdoor opportunities. And so much of the outdoors, for me, at least, involved walking through the wetland trails on SF Bay, along the ocean, in huge public parks and pathways up and down the coast. Of course, public shoreline has been enshrined in the California Constitution as long as its been privately owned here, so the perspectives formed are obviously different.

    Private ownership of the tidelands just seems wrong to me. I don’t see how people can, in good conscience, restrict what should be the public commons. I also think California and Oregon and other states with public shoreline access should be testament to the fact that public access CAN work and is a good thing. Northern California’s public shores are also an example in restored, incredible habitat for an abundance of wildlife. There is public investment in what belongs to the public.

  3. Doesn’t California border on bankruptcy?

    Teachers in California must be remarkable educators for the teachers union to allow them to retire at 50 years old and given 90% of their salary.

    California students must excel across the board and lead the nation in scholastic pursuits to have such brilliant teachers. Poor teachers must be plumb wore out by the time they reach 50 and can’t teach anymore.

    Something isn’t working for California.
    No, lets not copy their practice of doing whatever it is causing them to flush away.
    Sharon O’Hara

  4. And how does California’s financial situation connect with a long-time Constitutional provision that allows for public shoreline and coastline access? This particular management of public lands goes back to the late 1800s in terms of granting public access. Current political mismanagement of fiscal resources has no bearing on the things California has done right. And there are many things the state has done right, in spite what a lot of people (who haven’t lived there) hear and read. I speak as a someone born and raised in Seattle, who’s had the benefit of living in both places. I don’t think that loving the Northwest and feeling civic loyalty and pride (which I do) means one should exclude aspects of life from other states that are, indeed, working for the public good and public commons. There are obviously many beautiful, smart and efficient aspects of urban planning that California cities would do well to adopt from Seattle. Shoreline access for many just happens to be one area where California and Oregon both excel (and that’s not to exclude other states in the Union where public shoreline access is also granted).

  5. Thanks for the heads up. I don’t know California’s shoreline public stand – I assumed it was new.
    I did live there many years ago and enjoyed the beaches and, at that time – not now – breathed their clean air.

    I’m familiar with only one small part of the scene you describe in this state – the family who lives on waterfront and pays taxes on the beach and believe its theirs at low tide.

    They live with the summer folks who buy a sliver of waterfront next to them and party…lots of friends and family and dogs spilling over onto their neighbors beach.

    Not a problem unless they are taxed on that waterfront. Let the state refund the excess of waterfront taxes then and let the public run over the beaches.

    How would that work?
    Sharon O’Hara

  6. First, I agree with you that retroactively changing shoreline access would present some issues. I’m not sure how it would be resolved in its complexity. Oregon would be a better example of that since their implementation was much later with, I’m sure, similar taxation issues. You can probably enlighten me on that. I still feel it’s a shame that most of the land surrounding Puget Sound is inaccessible except to mostly wealthy land holders.

    The types of problems you cite — neighbors spilling over onto your property — is more of an issue, I think, when you have such tightly held land assets. What I mean by that is, throughout states like Oregon and California, you can meander for miles along public trails that are cared for and groomed — past waterfront homes. I’m not just talking about the beaches you frequented. Shoreline encompasses so much more, including wetlands habitats, trail access, and various terrains that allow for a huge swath of natural resources areas on the water (for humans and for wildlife). In those cases, you’re not venturing into sensitive low tide areas and sea creature habitat as I see people do here . . . just to have water access. I mean, if you have a 1/16th of a mile to walk on the beach, you’ll be a lot more tempted to venture into restricted areas. That’s an argument for MORE public access.

    In other states, there’s an infrastructure in place that allows for the public to reach many areas of the coast and of the bays, without trespassing and while taking the property rights into account. I feel it’s a shame that people were allowed to build with their bulkheads all the way up to and encircling Puget Sound. I can understand restricting people from the edge of a limited property line. But to “own” the tidelands? I’m sorry but that’s an outlandish concept even if some old legalities said it should be so.

    I say this not just from the perspective of a citizen but also from a wildlife standpoint. So much of the wetlands have disappeared and private properties and lawns butting right up to the water line have not been conducive to maintaining habitat for birds and other wildlife. Public administration of shoreline and state parks allows for this to happen, and that’s one considerable advantage.

    btw: On your idea of dirty air in California. You’re probably talking about Southern California, in parts. Northern California is a different biome altogether. It’s such a huge state, you can’t make those generalizations except city by city.

  7. I disagree with the concept mostly wealthy people own the waterfront around Puget Sound. Many Navy Yard workers bought lots over fifty years ago out in then remote areas and built homes. The lots – many of them – measured 50’x60′ – hardly wealthy habitats for these folks and their family.

    Over time and increased settlement, taxes have driven many of these folks out of the market. Their places remain bumped up against each other only spelled by state parks and public boat launch areas.

    Increased settlement and the unaware homeowner love of deep green lawns and belief in the promotion of insecticides and pesticides have helped change our environment but we’re coming aware and changes must be made.

    Personally I don’t want to walk across beaches showing nothing little more than rocks and wall to wall houses and bulkheads only feet away.

    There is a big difference between our local waterways and the huge ocean expanse on Hwy 101 along the California and Oregon coast – as I recall the drive.

    To be more specific: The California city I visited twice a few years ago was San Diego and I was shocked by the heavy air – heavy and hard to breathe. When I lived there the air was clean.

    San Francisco, on the other hand had good air when I was there a few years ago..in my opinion.
    Sharon O’Hara

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