Shorelines, by their nature, are chaotic. The sea and the wind re-draw the shore's physical geography over time — often, on a yearly or even a daily basis.

The shoreline as a legal reality is just as dynamic. Like the ever-shifting boundary between salt water and dry land, the damp middle ground between upland private property and the publicly-owned ocean can be just as dynamic and turbulent. Yankee Magazine tackles the complex issue of beach ownership in a long article this month: ("Beach Access Controversy: Who Owns the Beach?" by Ian Aldrich). At the center of the story: Goose Rocks, Maine, a town where a long tradition of accommodation between beachfront owners and day visitors gave way in recent years to contention, controversy, and lawsuits.


In this historic photo of the Wright brothers' third test glider being launched at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, on October 10, 1902, Wilbur Wright is at the controls, Orville Wright is at left, and Dan Tate (a local resident and friend of the Wright brothers) is at right. A century of legal and political wrangling later, the question of who is allowed to use the beach, and for what purpose, remains in dispute all along the United States coastline.

Beachfront property owners often assume that they own their land all the way up to the water. And in a sense, they do — at least, they own the land up to the high water mark. But traditionally, the area between high and low tide has been, like the ocean itself, part of the common wealth — property of "the Crown," as old English common law defined the King's domain, or, in America, property of the people, whose authority over the intertidal zone is exercised by state and Federal governments, acting (in theory, at least) as stewards of the public's interest in the intertidal zone.

But state laws vary — some states (including Maine and Massachusetts) give oceanfront owners control all the way up to the low tide line, not the high tide line. And even in Maine or Massachusetts, tradition of long public use on any given stretch of land can lead to a legal decision that ownership has passed to the public (as happened, at least partially, in Goose Rocks).

Where it gets sticky is when some individual member of the public wants to use the beach — or, even more problematic, some large group of people. Fishing or swimming is one thing — but when it's a blanket party, or, say, a motorcycle race, then the upland property owners may feel they have a legitimate grievance against their fellow citizens. On the other hand, if a beachfront homeowner or club decides to fence off the whole beach and deny other people the ability to walk along the shore at low tide — or even to wade knee-deep in the Navy's salty territory — then the public sometimes raises a stink.

Coastal Connection has touched on this legal and political thicket before. We reported on a Texas Supreme Court decision about that state's "Open Beaches" law in April, 2012 ("Texas High Court Limits Open Beaches Law," by Ted Cushman), and we reported on a Florida case addressing ownership of stretches of beach created artificially by an Army Corps of Engineers beach restoration project in September, 2009 ("A Line in the Sand," by Ted Cushman).

Goose Rocks, Maine, is just one more episode in the never-ending national soap opera of beach rights. Reports Yankee Magazine:

"In a state that boasts more than 3,500 miles of coastline but makes just 5 percent of it open to the public, Goose Rocks is remarkably available to anyone able to find a parking space and pay the $12 for an all-day permit. For years, in fact, Goose Rocks has enjoyed a somewhat-blurred division between public and private property. Unlike what exists a few miles south in Wells, the shoreline that accompanies the area's 110 oceanfront homes has never been marked off by Private signs, much less fenced off. Walkers routinely make their way up and down the full length of the beach, and it's not uncommon to find uninvited sunbathers or boats parked on the sands near those houses.

But if a group of property owners have their way, that would change. Driven by fears that the town wants to ramp up commercial development, invite in thousands of additional visitors to the beach, and strip them of the property rights to which they say their deeds entitle them, these 29 homeowners have pushed to secure control over the shoreline.

For many locals the move has been viewed as an assault on the community, an attempt to overturn a century of public use on a beach that by everyone's account is never crowded. Early on, the town got behind the majority of its residents and asserted that the entire beach was public property. Failed mediation sessions gave way to failed attorney conversations, and then finally, last fall, a bruising three-week trial. In all, this fight has raged on for nearly six years and consumed almost $2 million in litigation costs. The path toward healing the community may be even steeper."