Using Taxation for Access
Law Books image

Common Law & Statutes
For information about land ownership and More...

Case Studies: Public Trust Doctrine

Matthews v. Bay Head Improvement Ass’n, 95 N.J. 306 (1984)

Case History: This is the first case of a private entity (quasi-private) being charged with Public Trust Doctrine regulations. The Plaintiff was a Point Pleasant resident who was prevented from swimming at the Borough of Bay Head beach by regulations imposed by the Bay Head Improvement Association.

Nine streets in the Borough, which are perpendicular to the beach, end at the dry sand. The Association owns the land commencing at the end of seven of these streets for the width of each street and extending through the upper dry sand to the mean high water line. During the summer, the Association employs lifeguards, police and beach cleaners for its beachfront property.

Association membership is generally limited to residents of Bay Head. Class A members are property owners and Class B members are non-owners. Except for fishermen, who are permitted to walk through the upper dry sand area to the foreshore, only members may use the Association’s beach between 10:00 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. during the summer season. The public is permitted to use the Association's beach from 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 a.m. during the summer and, with no hourly restrictions, between Labor Day and mid-June.

Holding: The Plaintiff won the case and the court held that the association was a quasi-public agency and should be treated in similar fashion as a municipality. Under the Public Trust Doctrine, the rights of the private beachfront owners must yield to the common good and to the public. The court did issue four important factors to determine where the public has a right to use the upland dry sand area, specifically when it is necessary for the enjoyment of the ocean.

  • Location of the dry sand area in relation to the foreshore
  • Extent and availability of publicly-owned upland sand area
  • Nature and extent of the public demand
  • Usage of the upland sand by the owner


Raleigh Ave. Beach Ass’n v. Atlantis Beach Club, Inc. 185 N.J. 40 (2005)

Case History: New Jersey Supreme Court Case which was brought about when the Atlantis Beach Club after 10 years of allowing public access to the beach adjacent their property, began to restrict access and strictly enforce non- members from using the beach. Suit was brought by a local resident association seeking access to the wet sand area and to a “sufficient amount of dry sand above the mean high water line” as granted by the Public Trust Doctrine.

Holding: Applying the factors set out in Matthews regarding application of the public trust doctrine, the court found in favor of the plaintiff. The court based its ruling on the following:

  • Long standing prior public access to and use of the beach (before they began enforcing the policies).
  • CAFRA permit that was issued to a condominium project next to the beach that required public access to that beach.
  • Lack of publicly owned beaches in the township.
  • The court did allow for a reasonable charge to be applied towards lifeguards, trash removal, and shower facilities.


Van Ness v. Deal, 78 N.J. 174, 178 (1978)

Case History: Plaintiff a public advocate brought suit against a private casino, which with authority of the municipality had restricted access to the beach directly adjacent to the casino. Restrictions were that only members of the casino could use the beach. The argument made by casino was that they made a public access beach available directly next to the private beach. The Plaintiff argued that the casino was barred from restricting access due to the Public Trust Doctrine.

Holding: The public trust doctrine required that municipally owned upland sand area adjacent to the tidal waters must be open to all on equal terms and without preference. The Plaintiff was successful and the beach restrictions were lifted.


Arnold v. Mundy, 6 N.J. at 309 (Sup. T. 1821) –

Case History: Earliest New Jersey case to apply the Public Trust Doctrine. The Defendant was claiming ownership rights of water which were below the mean low tide line. Defendant had staked off an area of the water and spent considerable time and money to harvest Oysters.

Holding: The court held that the defendant was prohibited from appropriating to himself navigable waters adjacent to his land. The court made a legal distinction between private, public and common property. Chief Justice Kirkpatrick included in common property “the air, the running water, the sea, the fish, and the wild beasts”.


Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi, 484 U.S. 469 (1988) –

Case History: Important case because it is a U.S. Supreme Court Case recognizing the Public Trust Doctrine. The lawsuit stemmed from “certain tracts of land in southwestern Mississippi, totaling 42 acres in area, lay under a bayou and 11 small drainage streams. These waters lay several miles north of the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and were not navigable, but they were nonetheless influenced by the tide, since they were adjacent and tributary to a navigable stream which flowed into the Gulf of Mexico and which, in the area at issue, was affected by the ebb and flow of the tide. Record title to the lands at issue was held by private claimants who traced their claims back to prestatehood Spanish land grants. These titleholders and their predecessors in interest had paid taxes on those lands for more than a century. However, the state of Mississippi, claiming that it had acquired a public trust interest in the lands at the time it entered the Union in 1817, issued oil and gas leases for those lands in 1977. The titleholders brought suit in the Chancery Court of Hancock County, Mississippi, to quiet title.” Phillips Petroleum Co. v. Mississippi, 484 U.S. 469 (1988).

Holding: U.S. Supreme Court recognized the public trust doctrine beyond commerce, navigation and fisheries. The court also held that asserting a public right is not an unconstitutional taking or exaction of the right asserted is recognized under the public trust doctrine of the law of that state.