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Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Association

    Brief Fact Summary. An Association owns a parcel of land that borders a beach and restricts access to that portion of the beach to members only.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The public has a right of access through private property to get to a public beach.

    Facts. The Association owns a parcel of land that runs along a beach. It is a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to improve and beautify the beach in the area. Only members of the Association may use the beach during the summer. The public trust doctrine states that ownership, dominion and sovereignty over land flowed by tidal waters is vested in the State in trust for the people.

    Issue. Does the public have a right of access through and to use a beach area not owned by a municipality but by a quasi-public body?

    Held. Yes.
    The public trust doctrine guarantees to the pubic the right to use a portion of the ocean shore (the land below the mean average high water mark) for swimming, bathing and recreational purposes.
    The state must preserve the public trust right even when the beach property is transferred to private hands.
    Exercise of the right to swim and bathe in the ocean depends upon a right to pass across the beach. Without some means of access the public right to use the beach would be meaningless. The public interest is satisfied as long as there is reasonable access to the ocean, which is not necessarily an unrestricted right to cross.
    The public must be given reasonable access through private property to get to the publicly-owned shore front. Further, the public also has a right to sunbath on privately owned dry sand areas.

    Discussion. The court has given the public a quasi-easement through private property to get to public ocean-front property under the public trust doctrine. The public’s interest in these lands is protected, even if the state does not own the l


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