There are only two US states where it's legal to own the ocean

Originally published at: There are only two US states where it's legal to own the ocean | Boing Boing


You may own the beach, but you’ll never own the waves.


*There are only two US states where it’s legal to own a small portion of the ocean floor


There are at least 3 states. You can add Washington to the list.


Not quite ownership I guess, but Alaska sells exclusive mining rights to sections of the Bering Sea. There’s a big grid drawn on the ocean that is auctioned off section by section and the “owners” are the only ones allowed to mine the sea floor in that area.


you mean this stolen land resident’s wood box sits on is “resident’s” land? I thought all the land in the USA was stolen from the natives. So the white colonists of america are fighting over stolen land, what else is new?


When I read this my first thought was actual portions of the ocean out past the tidal areas-- fishermen can be very territorial, particularly lobstermen.


*stolen from the natives that stole it from the previous wave of natives…


Here in Canada everything below the high tide line is owned by the ‘Crown’ (federal government).

For 50 years here in my town it has resulted in local kids gleefully ignoring the ‘no swimming or jumping’ sign posted by the town on one of the docks. Often they (ok we) will jump over the sign on the way to the water.


I was hoping the two states would be Kansas and Nebraska. That there would be some kind of weird law on the books entitling residents to own any part of the ocean that encroaches on their very landlocked states.


Yeah there’s something amiss here (perhaps due to my misfortune of not being born a lawyer), as the whole issue of “private beach” seems relatively common. Here’s for Florida: [linky]. Here, as reply-ee indicates, is for Washington state (which i myself have run afoul of and my tent with me), And here is a ‘quora’ on the issue which muddles the whole matter as “Well… it’s mostly an unresolved legal issue at the states level” Then comes (oh) Canada…


There are at least 3 states. You can add Washington to the list.

At least4: add Virginia, at least on the Chesapeake and tidal rivers. Family long had property on the bay and faced this issue in a (mostly cordial) dispute with the neighbor as the coastline shifted over the years. Not sure about the actual ocean-front but it would be weird for it to have different laws, right? The law is never weird like that. :shushing_face:


Navigating into the Deep Cove public dock with teenagers in the water is fraught. If only I could be one of them again!

I don’t know why one couldn’t own a chunk of ocean conceptually. Not any different than the concept of land ownership. In BC there are waterlots to allow occupation of a section of water. In the middle of the southern Georgia Straight (Salish Sea) there are three military controlled areas: WE, WF, WG. Port Authorities control and effectively “own” the ocean.

Missouri and Iowa are bicoastal, if you count the big rivers. Which I do.

Entire books are written on the laws in California around this. All beach is public, but a whole lot of wealthy people work really hard to make sure nobody knows that and they try constantly to block entrances to the beach. The law gets really complicated when, for example, someone buys the property that includes the only access to a section of beach. The state then mandates that the owner must maintain the road through their land for public use, in some cases even mandating public parking on their land. The wealthy landowners frequently don’t realize this when they buy the property (or they do and think they can fight it) so lengthy court battles ensue. This is usually accompanied by them putting up gates and then those gates being broken open over and over in the meantime.

So far, California has never backed down on this issue AFAIK. There are a couple of private beaches (eg. Paradise Cove) that were grandfathered in, but so far no amount of money has netted anyone new private beach since the law started.


Iowa is the only state whose eastern and western borders are formed entirely by rivers


That is roughly where it’s at in the US. But the standard is vaguer than “high tide line”, and even in states that use that as the mark there’s often question about which high tide mark. Cause that varies seasonally, and there’s a question of if it’s the highest high tide line which can be quite far in thanks to storms. Or an average, or the highest yearly average or what have. That’s how certain states can roll with low tide, and similarly disputable marks for what that means.

So more accurately you can’t own the ocean in the US. But you can own the shore, and there’s pretty constant debate about how much.

So there’s a distinction between the colloquial concept of “private beach” and more technical concept of private beach access. You can own land adjacent to the water, and that might encompass part of the beach itself. But beyond whatever point a given state determines is the cutoff, it’s Federal/Public property.

You can prevent people from entering or crossing your private property. But federally you can not prevent people from accessing public land (or water I guess for Mass and the others). Here so long as there is a public access point some reasonable distance away, such that a person can walk it along the public beach. It’s generally cool. But if there is not, an owner might be forced to include a public access path. Though that’s usually only done to hotels and private beach resorts cause getting insurance for it is ridiculously expensive.

Other states handle it differently,

It looks like they use mean low water mark as well.

But these sorts of disputes aren’t uncommon even where it’s mean high water mark, or someplace further inland (sometimes dunes are protected here, pushing ownership rights further inland). Because the issue is often as much beach access, or access to clearly public land as it is where ownership ends.

It seems like it was relatively common here for deeds for waterfront houses to specify that the owned parcel extended 1/2 mile or more into the open water. Which was never really legally possible, but made the properties look much larger and helped realtors bump up their value.


of course below the low tide line on the Potomac, you’re in Maryland. They used to build bars on piers into the river so that they could have slot machines when those were legal in Maryland. Which meant that the bouncers were even more free to do whatever they wanted than usual, since the police were hours away, across the river. Basically, they only got called for fights if somebody died.

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And that would be a problem because retroactively changing the rules about what rights someone acquired when they signed a contract to buy land, rights which in those jurisdictions have been in place for literal centuries, shouldn’t be compensated? Are we just throwing out the whole idea of compensation requirements for eminent domain, then, or did you have a specific proposal to define that, too? After all, it’s not like I use every square foot of my backyard, so I should have no objection to laws being passed allowing others to use it. I’m very much in favor of proposals like this that guarantee public access to beaches. In many contexts I’d like to see much more use of new laws and regulations to take some rights from private property owners for the public good. I just don’t understand this specific objection to compensating them for doing so.

On a less snarky note: how do the rules on allowed public uses of land interact with liability laws?

Generally you have to perform upkeep and take reasonable measures to keep the areas of your property that are accessible to the public safe – shoveling sidewalks after a snow is the classic example. Sometimes you have to protect hazards on areas of your property that are not generally accessible to the public under attractive nuisance doctrine.

I’m sure there are specific issues to beach / ocean access, but it isn’t like this is territory the legal system doesn’t have precedent on.

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