The public trust doctrine derives from the English common law principle that all of the land covered by tidal waters belongs to the sovereign held in trust for the people to use. That common law principle, in turn, has roots in Roman jurisprudence, which held that by the law of nature, the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shores of the sea, were common to mankind. No one was forbidden access to the sea, and everyone could use the seashore to dry his nets there, and haul them from the sea. The seashore was not private property, but was subject to the same law as the sea itself, and the sand or ground beneath it.
A club held title to certain beach property, the only beach in a township that faced the Atlantic Ocean. The beach was open to the public for at least 10 years, but in 1996 the club established a private beach club and limited access to the beach by charging substantial fees for beach memberships. The neighborhood association filed suit asserting that the club had violated the public trust doctrine. The appellate division held that the club could not limit vertical or horizontal access to its dry sand beach area and could not interfere with the public's right to free use of the dry sand for intermittent recreational purposes. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of New Jersey.
Does a beach club violate the public trust doctrine by closing public access to the beach and shorefront?
Applying the factors set out in Matthews regarding application of the public trust doctrine, the court affirmed the appellate division' decision. The court based its ruling on the long-standing prior public access to and use of the beach, a Coastal Area Facility Review Act (CAFRA), N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 13:19-1 to -21, permit that was issued to a condominium project next to the beach that required public access to the beach, the lack of publicly-owned beaches in the township, and the use clubs use of the beach as a business enterprise. The court also adopted the appellate division's ruling that the club could charge a reasonable fee to cover expenses for lifeguards, trash removal, and shower facilities. The Department of Environmental Protection had jurisdiction under CAFRA to review the fees proposed by the club.