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Shoreline Management

The Public Trust Doctrine

The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal principle derived from English Common Law. The essence of the doctrine is that the waters of the state are a public resource owned by and available to all citizens equally for the purposes of navigation, conducting commerce, fishing, recreation and similar uses and that this trust is not invalidated by private ownership of the underlying land. The doctrine limits public and private use of tidelands and other shorelands to protect the public's right to use the waters of the state.  (Visit the MSRC Web site and search for the State Supreme Court case Caminiti v. Boyle, 107 Wn. 2d 662, 732 P.2d 989)

The Public Trust Doctrine does not allow the public to trespass over privately owned uplands to access the tidelands. It does, however, protect public use of navigable water bodies below the ordinary high water mark.

Protection of the trust is a duty of the State, and the Shoreline Management Act is one of the primary means by which that duty is carried out. The doctrine requires a careful evaluation of the public interest served by any action proposed. This requirement is fulfilled in major part by the planning and permitting requirements of the Shoreline Management Act. (Court case: MSRC Web site and search for Portage Bay v. Shorelines Hearings Bd., 92 Wn.2d 1, 593 P.2d 151)

Local governments should consider public trust doctrine concepts when developing comprehensive plans, development regulations and shoreline master programs. There are few "bright lines," however, as the Public Trust Doctrine is common law, not statutory law. The extent of its applicability can only be determined by state court decisions. The document below is a good introduction to the case law in Washington State.

For a national perspective, consider:

  • Putting the Public Trust Doctrine to Work, 2nd Ed., by David Slade, examines the issue from a national perspective. Copies available for purchase from the Coastal States Organization.