Emerald Isle couple draws line in sand over ownership of beach
Posted August 12, 2016
Emerald Isle, N.C. — A case headed to the state Supreme Court could affect public use of beaches along the North Carolina coast.
Greg and Diane Nies are challenging rules Emerald Isle adopted in 2010, setting aside a 20-foot swath of sand from the dunes out toward the ocean for emergency vehicle access. The New Jersey couple, who bought a beachfront home 15 years ago, say the Carteret County town has effectively created a road across their property.
"The whole issue is, you can't take someone's property without compensation," Greg Nies said Friday. "They’ve never offered to sit down and talk about it."
Under state law, beachfront lots stretch all the way to the average high tide mark. Emerald Isle Town Manager Frank Rush said there's no dispute there, but the public still needs access to the beach.
"The public, having used this beach since time immemorial, has the right to use the beach basically from the base of the dunes to the water," Rush said. "This is a public beach area. It has always been. We want it to continue to be a public beach area."
In a brief filed in the case, Attorney General Roy Cooper agreed.
"The public also enjoys, for example, the rights of fishing, pedestrian travel, hunting, and recreation. These rights have been recognized at common law. They are a function of both the distinct physical nature of beaches and their unique place in our society," he wrote.
Cooper argued that the Nieses should have known there were limits to the privacy of their property.
"After vacationing at least annually in Emerald Isle since 1980, the Plaintiffs knew or should have known at the time they acquired their private property in 2001 of the free usage the public makes of the ocean," he wrote.
The Nieses said they have no desire to keep people from the sands near their home. They just don't appreciate Emerald Isle ordering them to stay off part of their property.
"We cannot sit on a beach towel. We cannot sit on a beach chair. We cannot be there ever," Diane Nies said, adding that trash trucks and other vehicles use the area the town set aside all day long.
"It's not an emergency lane. It's a full-time road," she said.
The state Court of Appeals ruled in Emerald Isle's favor in December, and the state Supreme Court agreed in April to hear the case.
"It’s essentially going to determine whether or not the public will continue to have the right to use the full width of beach in North Carolina," Rush said.
In a post on the town website, Emerald Isle's position is: "The entire North Carolina beach experience is at stake in this case, and the NC Supreme Court's decision could impact all of us in the future."
All eight beachfront counties and 20 beachfront towns have filed legal briefs supporting Emerald Isle, while property rights groups are lining up behind the Nieses.