Common Law and Statutes

What legal principles govern coastal land ownership and access rights?

In Alabama, coastal property owners own land to the mean high tide line. Land below the mean high tide line, including the wet beach, is owned by the state and held in trust for the public under the public trust doctrine. The right to own property and exclude others from it is a fundamental feature of U.S. law. Under Alabama common law, coastal property owners may prevent people from gaining access to the shoreline of their land. Unauthorized access – either perpendicularly or horizontally to the shore – may be trespassing for which one may be liable in court.

The State of Alabama and local governments have the authority under their police powers to make laws protecting the welfare of their citizens, including regulating lands next to beaches and shores. Under the public trust doctrine, the government is obliged to act on behalf of the public to protect publicly-owned submerged lands below the mean low tide line, and publicly owned natural resources, such as fish and oysters, that might be extracted from the shore.

Another unique aspect of coastal property rights is that waterfront property lines may move over time. This can happen in three ways: erosion, accretion, and avulsion. When property naturally erodes, the upland owner loses land, as more of the land becomes tidelands. In the case of natural accretion, the opposite happens. If a parcel of land naturally builds up sand along its shoreline, that property belongs to the upland owner. Avulsion refers to a sudden event, like a hurricane, that changes the property line. In such an instance, the property line remains fixed at its pre-storm position, but a landowner may be allowed to reclaim the area by filling in the newly submerged area of land.

What state statutes are relevant to access issues?

State laws affecting public access to the coast include:

• Alabama Coastal Area Management Program (ACAMP)
◦ Ala. Admin. Code Ch. 335-8-1

• Alabama Recreational Use Statute
◦ Ala. Code § 35-15-1

Federal laws affecting public access to the shore include:

• U.S. Coastal Zone Management Act
About the CZMA

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