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End of the RoadWho owns the sea and shore? The Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management has a Public Access Program to provide information about coastal access and inform the public of their rights along the shoreline. Public Rights along the Shoreline is an electronic fact sheet providing a brief primer on waterfront property law and public access rights.

Who owns the beach? Tideland “is the legal term for all land beneath the waters of the ocean, including lands that are always submerged as well as those in the intertidal area (i.e., between the high and low tide marks). In every coastal state, the use of tidelands is governed by a concept in property law known as the Public Trust Doctrine which dates back centuries to Roman law. The doctrine states that all rights in tidelands and the water itself are held by the state “in trust” for the benefit of the public. In most states, this means that public ownership begins at the high water mark.”

Not so in Massachusetts. In the Colonial Ordinance of 1641-47, the Massachusetts Bay Colony moved the line between public and private property farther seaward to the low tide mark. In Massachusetts, the intertidal area know as private tidelands are “presumed to belong to the upland property owner, unless legal documentation proves otherwise for a given parcel.”

Although the Colonial Ordinance changed the ownership of most intertidal flats from public to private, it did not transfer all property rights originally held in trust by the state. For one thing, no rights to the water itself (as distinct from the underlying lands) were relinquished by the Ordinance. Moreover, the law specifically reserved for the public the right to continue to use private tidelands for three purposes – fishing, fowling, and navigation.”

For more information, see the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries’ Massachusetts Law About Beach Rights.



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