09 November 2013

Controversial Court Decisions: Raleigh Avenue Beach Assn. v. Atlantis Beach Club

This is one in a series of posts designed to describe controversial, notorious, infamous, and outrageous court decisions. For similar posts, click here.

Case: Raleigh Avenue Beach Assn. v. Atlantis Beach Club, 185 N.J. 40 (2005).

Map note: The property in question is the dry beach area listed below as the "Atlantis Beach Club Property." To its south is property of the United States Coast Guard which is closed most of the summer. To its north is Seapointe Village's Beach, which is open to the public.

Facts: Tony Labrosciano, a member of the Raleigh Avenue Beach Association, was issued a summons for trespassing when he attempted to leave the wet sand area and walk across the private property of the Atlantis Beach Club to the eastern terminus of Raleigh Avenue in Cape May, New Jersey. The Association, which consists of individuals who reside on Raleigh Avenue in the Diamond Beach neighborhood, filed a complaint against Atlantis, and claimed that Atlantis was in violation of the public trust doctrine and sought free public access through the Atlantis property to the beach, and to a sufficient amount of dry sand above the mean high water line to permit the public to enjoy the beach and beach-related activities. The public trust doctrine is the principle that certain resources are preserved for public use, and that the government is required to maintain them for the public's reasonable use. The doctrine was born in Roman times, when Justinian ruled that seashores were open to the public, so that fishermen could dry their nets.

Trial Court: The trial court held that the public was entitled to a right of horizontal access to the ocean by means of “a three-foot wide strip of dry sand, immediately landward of the mean high water line and extending from the northern to the southern boundaries of [the Atlantis] [p]roperty, which may be utilized by the public, at no charge, for the purpose of entering into and exiting from” the area located below the mean high water line. The trial court also held that the public was entitled to limited vertical access to the ocean, consisting of a path from the bulkhead through the dunes on the property. The trial court also ruled that the Public Trust Doctrine does not apply to permit the Department [of Environmental Protection] to regulate the use of the Beach Area. (emphasis added)”

Appellate Court: The Appellate Division of the Superior Court, and then the Supreme Court of New Jersey, ruled that Atlantis could not limit vertical or horizontal public access to its dry sand beach area nor interfere with the public's right to free use of the dry sand for intermittent recreational purposes connected with the ocean and wet sand. Atlantis could charge reasonable fees to access the beach, but was required to pick up trash, provide shower facilities, and provide lifeguard service. 

Why It's Controversial: The public trust doctrine was born in Roman times from the need to protect the livelihood of fishermen. In New Jersey, the courts recognized that the public trust doctrine focused on the preservation of the “natural water resources” of New Jersey “for navigation and commerce and fishing, an important source of food.” In an earlier case, New Jersey extended this doctrine to recreational uses, without any legal justification. And even in New Jersey, the public trust doctrine had never extended to purely private property as was the case with the Atlantic Beach Club. Doubling down on an expansive use of the public trust doctrine ("The public trust doctrine...should not be considered fixed or static, but should be molded and extended to meet changing conditions and needs of the public it was created to benefit.was created to benefit"), the New Jersey Supreme Court decimated the private property rights of the Atlantic Beach Club, despite the fact that Seapointe Village's Beach was open to the public just a few hundred feet to the north (see map above).
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