Monday, August 22, 2016
Oceanfront landowners and states share a property boundary that runs between the wet and dry parts of the shore. This legal coastline is different from an ordinary land boundary. First, on sandy beaches, the line is constantly in flux, and it cannot be marked except momentarily. Without the help of a surveyor and a court, neither the landowner nor a citizen walking down the beach has the ability to know exactly where the line lies. This uncertainty means that, as a practical matter, ownership of some part of the beach is effectively shared. Second, the common law establishes that the owner of each oceanfront lot holds easement-like interests in adjacent state-owned land; and, the state holds similar interests in the oceanfront lot. For these two reasons, the legal relationship between the oceanfront owner and the state is more interdependent than it may seem at first. It is much more than the usual neighbor relationship.
Disputes over oceanfront property are often framed as cases of wrongful taking under the Fifth Amendment’s Just Compensation Clause. The Supreme Court has historically applied its standard takings test for determining whether or not a state is liable for the impact of its rules on a landowner’s rights. This Article is the first to examine the question of whether use of this standard test is optimal, or even logical, in cases between states and the owners of oceanfront land. Given the fact that climate change impacts such as sea-level rise are likely to increase rates of conflict along the legal coastline, the potential benefits of a test that takes into account the special relationship between these parties are significant. Support for an alternative test can be found in two sets of common law property rules, the upland rights and public trust doctrines, as well as in a mechanism that nineteenth-century courts used to resolve similar disputes.