Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Public Trust vs. Private Rights – Where’s the Line?


Centuries ago, the seas were viewed as the common property of everyone -  they weren’t subject to private use and ownership.  This concept was later adopted in English law, the Magna Carta, and became part of the common (non-statutory) law in the United States.  Over the years, the doctrine has been primarily applied to access to the seashore and intertidal waters, but it can also be applied with respect to natural resources.  A recent case involving seaweed involved the application of the public trust doctrine.

The public trust doctrine and the right to harvest seaweed – that’s the topic of today’s post.

In General

The U.S. Supreme Court’s first application of the public trust doctrine was in 1842 in Martin v. Lessee of Waddell, 41 U.S.367 (1842). In the case, the issue was who had the right to submerged land and oyster harvesting off the coast of New Jersey.  The Court, largely based on the language in the charter granted by the King to a Duke to establish a colony and for policy and economic reasons, determined that the land area in issue belonged to the state of New Jersey for the benefit of the people of the state.  The Court dealt with the issue again in 1892 in a case involving a railroad that had been granted a large amount of the Chicago harbor. Illinois Central Railroad Company v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387 (1892).  The Court determined that the government cannot alienate (interfere with) the public’s right to access land under waters that are navigable in fact except for situations where the land involved wouldn’t interfere with the public’s ability to access the water or impair navigation. 

As generally applied in the United States (although there are differences among the states), an oceanfront property owner can exclude the public below the mean high tide (water) line.  See e.g., Gunderson v. State, 90 N.E. 3d 1171 (Ind. 2018)That’s the line of intersection of the land with the water's surface at the maximum height reached by a rising tide (e.g., high water mark).  Basically, it’s the debris line or the line where you would find fine shells.  However, traceable to the mid-1600s, Massachusetts and Maine recognize private property rights to the mean low tide line even though they do allow the public to have access to the shore between the low and high tide lines for "fishing, fowling and navigation.  In addition, in Maine, the public can cross private shoreline property for scuba diving purposes.  McGarvey v. Whittredge, 28 A.3d 620 (Me. 2011). 

Other applications of the public trust doctrine involve the preservation of oil resources, fish stocks and crustacean beds.  Also, many lakes and navigable streams are maintained via the public trust doctrine for purposes of drinking water and recreation. 

Recent Case

The public trust doctrine was invoked recently in a Maine case.  In Ross v. Acadian Seaplants, Ltd., 2019 ME 45 (2019), the defendants harvest rockweed with skiffs in the intertidal zones of Maine. Rockweed is a perennial plant that attaches to the rocks in the intertidal zones. Rockweed regulates the temperature of the area where it is located and is home to many organisms. Commercially, rockweed is used for fertilizer and feed. To harvest Rockweed, the defendant uses skiffs, rakes, and watercraft without physically stepping foot on the intertidal zone. The defendant annually harvests the statutory maximum 17 percent of eligible harvestable rockweed biomass in Cobscook Bay. The plaintiff, an intertidal landowner, sued seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that the plaintiff is the exclusive owner of the rockweed growing on and affixed to his intertidal property; and (2) injunctive relief that would prohibit the defendant from harvesting rockweed from the plaintiff’s intertidal land without his permission. The defendant sought a judgment declaring that harvesting rockweed from the intertidal water is a public right as a form of "fishing" and "navigation" within the meaning of the Colonial Ordinance. The trial court granted summary judgment for the plaintiff on the declaratory judgment claim, and on the defendants’ counterclaim. The trial court denied the defendant’s counterclaim.

On appeal, the state Supreme Court affirmed, holding that rockweed that is attached to and growing on rocks in the intertidal zone is private property owned by the adjacent landowner.  The Court noted that the English common law tradition vested both “title” to and “dominion” over the intertidal zone in the crown.  While title belonged to the crown, however, it was held subject to the public’s rights of “navigation,” “commerce,” and “fishing.”  After the American colonies gained independence, the ownership of intertidal land devolved to the particular state where the intertidal area was located.  See, e.g., Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi, 484 U.S. 469 (1988)But, the Court noted the uniqueness of rockweed.  It takes specialized equipment and skills to harvest it, and harvesting didn’t “look like” the usual activities in the water of fishing and navigation. Instead, it was more like the other uses in the intertidal zone that have been held to be outside the public trust doctrine.  Thus, the Court concluded that the harvesting of rockweed was not within the collection of rights held by the State for use by its citizens – the public couldn’t engage in rockweed harvest as a matter of right.  The Court stated that, "rockweed in the intertidal zone belongs to the upland property owner and therefore is not public property, is not held in trust by the State for public use, and cannot be harvested by members of the public as a matter of right."


The application of the public trust doctrine has the potential to be quite broad.  Environmental activists and others opposed to various agricultural activities often attempt to get courts to apply the doctrine in an expansive manner well beyond public access to that of preservation in general.  The potential application of the doctrine can be rather expansive – nonpoint source pollution from farm field runoff; wetlands; dry sand areas; cattle ranching in areas of the West, etc.  See, e.g., Mathews v. Bay Head Improvement Association, 471 A.2d 355 (N.J. 1984).  The issue is acute in California where a private party can bring an independent action against a state agency under the public trust doctrine when that agency allegedly doesn’t follow the public trust in the conduct of its duties.  See Citizens for Biological Diversity, Inc. v. FPL Group, Inc., 83 Cal. Rptr. 3d 588 (Cal Ct. App. 2008); San Francisco Baykeeper, Inc. v. State Lands Commission, 29 Cal. App. 5th 562, 240 Cal. Rptr. 3d 510 (2018)

In the recent Maine case, the public trust doctrine was not used to unnecessarily erode private property rights.  The Court balanced the public’s rights against those of private property owners.  It wasn’t enough for the plaintiff to simply assert the public trust doctrine. 

Maybe there’s hope that the public trust doctrine will be properly balanced against the rights of private landowners.  The recent Maine case weighs in on that side of the scale.

Civil Liabilities, Environmental Law, Real Property | Permalink


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