Editorial: NC beaches belong to all of us. Let's keep it that way

Posted September 5, 2016

Emerald Isle beach access sign

A CBC Editorial: Monday, Sept. 5. 2016; Editorial# 8051
The following is the opinion of Capitol Broadcasting Company

In North Carolina, the beaches belong to everyone. On this Labor Day weekend – even with the unwelcome storms earlier – tens of thousands of people are exercising their ownership rights as summer comes to a close.

It is long-held in North Carolina that the 301 miles of coastal beaches belong to all of us. The flat sand beach, from the water’s edge to the shifting dunes, are to be enjoyed by all of us. It is important this right of the people stays that way.

That principle is being challenged in the courts. A couple from New Jersey that owns beachfront property in Emerald Isle, contends that they own – and control – all the sand down to the “mean high water mark.”

Just who owns and controls that strip of beach – generally from where high-tide ends to where the dunes begin – has come up because Emerald Isle passed an ordinance forbidding beach-front property owners from putting anything (beach equipment for example) in that area. Emerald Isle argues that it might get in the way of emergency vehicles. The property owners have complained the area is damaged, by the ruts and trenches left in the sand by the municipal vehicles.

When the case was heard in Superior Court, the judge affirmed the right of Emerald Isle and public control of the strip of beach.

Three state Court of Appeals judges agreed as well.

“Public right of access to dry sand beaches in North Carolina is so firmly rooted in the custom and history of North Carolina that it has become part of the public consciousness,” wrote Linda McGee, chief Court of Appeals judge.

“Native-born North Carolinians do not generally question whether the public has the right to move freely between wet sand and dry sand portions of our beaches,” she said. “Though some state, such as plaintiffs’ home state of New Jersey recognize different rights of access to their ocean beaches, no such restrictions have traditionally been practices in North Carolina.”

To some surprise, the state Supreme Court agreed to hear a further appeal of the case even though it was not required to take it on after the unanimous Court of Appeals ruling. The high court didn’t outline any reasons for taking the case on.

While some observers worry about the court’s 4-3 Republican majority, other say the court may be interested in addressing the legal questions the case raises.

Support for assuring North Carolina’s beaches remain public has brought together about as diverse coalition as can be mustered in the state, at least according to the briefs filed with the high court. It includes the two opposing candidates for governor, local governments and tourism agencies that don’t always agree and can be sharply competitive.

The papers filed by Democratic Attorney General Roy Cooper’s office declare the beaches are “public ways that must remain open to the panoply of rights traditionally enjoyed by beach goers.”

The case is about more than tradition and legal theory. It’s about dollars and sense.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration said: “Public beaches are critical to supporting North Carolina’s economy. … A reversal of (the Court of Appeals) decision would deter tourists from visiting North Carolina beaches and jeopardize the state’s economy.”

That echoes the position being taken by a coalition of state and local travel and tourism groups. “The state’s vital tourism economy would suffer enormously if beachgoers lose their right to walk, play, relax and enjoy company of family and friends at the seashore,” the coalition said in a news release when it filed a Supreme Court brief.

North Carolina’s coast is a beloved asset, not merely because of it beauty or storied history. Where other states give private landowners more rights, North Carolina’s beaches are a treasure all citizens own and can enjoy.

It is precisely that principle the North Carolina Supreme Court should affirm.

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  • Skip Harris Sep 5, 2016
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    Actually, there is no debate over whole day the land. That is clearly prescribed by law. The question is whether the landowner can restrict use of the land. That is not as clear as Seth would like you to believe. This grey area is the reason for the NC Supreme Court to take up the issue. If it were clear cut then they would not. This issue is actually most appropriately settled by the GA. I do find it interesting that Mr Effron brings up concern with the Republican majority makeup of the Court. He often rails that Republicans are in favor of businesses over people. In this case the clear business interests lie with maintaining open beaches. You can't have it both ways. If you are going to make a boogeyman out of someone at least do it consistently.