DEEP: Who Owns The Shore:The Public Trust

Living on the Shore
Who Owns The Shore: The Public Trust

While much of the Connecticut shore is privately owned, the coastal tidelands actually belong to all the people—not just in terms of our environmental and cultural heritage, but in a specific legal sense as well. Under the common law public trust doctrine, a body of law dating back to Roman times, coastal states (as sovereigns) hold the submerged lands and waters waterward of the mean high water line in trust for the public. The general public may freely use these intertidal and subtidal lands and waters, whether they are beach, rocky shore, or open water, for traditional public trust uses such as fishing, ­shellfishing, boating, sunbathing, or simply walking along the beach.

In Connecticut, a line of state Supreme Court cases dating back to the ­earliest days of the republic confirms that in virtually every case private ­property ends at the mean high water line (the line on the shore established by the ­average of all high tides) and that the state holds title as trustee to the lands waterward of mean high water, subject to the private rights of littoral access, that is, access to navigable waters.

{The public trust image}

What is the boundary of the public trust area?

The public trust area includes submerged lands and waters waterward of the mean high water line in tidal, coastal, or navigable waters of the state of Connecticut. On the ground, the mean high water boundary of the ­public trust area can often be determined by a prominent wrack line, debris line, or water mark. In general, if an area is regularly wet by the tides, you are probably safe to assume that it is in the public trust. The public trust area is also sometimes referred to as tidelands and is defined as ”public beach“ by the Connecticut Coastal Management Act, C.G.S. 22a-93(6). While the public trust area extends up navigable rivers, it does not extend inland to areas landward of the mean high water line.

What rights does the public have within the public trust area?

According to the Connecticut courts, public rights to the shore include the
following:

  • The public has the right to fish and shellfish over submerged lands. Peck v. Lockwood, 5 Day 22 (1811).
  • The public has the right to pass and repass in navigable rivers. Adams v. Pease, 2 Conn 481 (1818).
  • The public may gather seaweed between ordinary high water and low water. Chapman v. Kimball, 9 Day 38 (1831).
  • “Public rights include fishing, boating, hunting, bathing, taking shellfish, gathering seaweed, cutting sedge, and of passing and repassing ….” Orange v. Resnick, 94 Conn 573 (1920).
  • “It is settled in Connecticut that the public has the right to boat, hunt, and fish on the navigable waters of the state.” State v. Brennan, 3 Conn Cir. 413 (1965).

How can I find out more?

There is considerable scholarly analysis of the public trust doctrine throughout the United States, mostly in legal and coastal management journals and proceedings. A good place to start is by reading the one-volume study "Putting the Public Trust Doctrine to Work," a revised 1997 report by the Coastal States Organization, or by contacting the DEEP Office of Long Island Sound Programs (OLISP) at (860) 424-3034.

Introduction | Access to Your Boat: Your Littoral Rights | Tidal Wetlands
Water Pollution | Shoreline Protection | What You Can Do