Avulsion. For a geologist, it’s the process whereby a river escapes its channel, but for a lawyer it’s a doctrine – and a highly contentious one.
On many occasions on this blog I have bemoaned the absurdities of coastal development – and re-development – in the face of the natural dynamics of the beach, the impact of storms and hurricanes on re-arranging the coastline, and the implications of rising sea levels. The ‘nourish or retreat?’ arguments continue, exacerbated by the devastation and aftermath of ‘Super-storm’ Sandy. There are widespread conflicts between developers and property-owners on the one side, and coastal scientists on the other – state and local governments in the US may take one side or the other, but more often than not ignore the science. The issues are clear also here in the UK, particularly in the wake of the recent appalling storms, but while wholesale removal of beaches revealed some interesting archaeology and geology, damage to coastal property and infrastructure was relatively limited. The arguments over nourishing, defending or retreating are contentious everywhere, but nowhere are more fraught and vehement – never mind expensive – than in the US.
I am not naive: these issues are complex, to say the least, and much is at stake in terms of the livelihood and finances of individuals, communities and businesses. It is clear too that laws dealing with these matters are also complex, but I had no idea what a hopeless quagmire has resulted from the lawyers going to the beach. The arena where the law meets geology and appropriates science for its own purposes would be amusing if it were not so absurd. I’m not quite sure how I got into this, but suffice it to say that I have spent several hours attempting to decipher the legalese of coastal property law. I have emerged only somewhat the wiser, but at least with a sense of the quagmire.
At the heart of the matter are boundaries, and along an ever-shape-shifting shoreline, these present problems. If the shoreline moves, do the property boundaries? Are they, in the delightful language of the lawyers, ambulatory? The answer to this question is further complicated by the fact that the laws vary from state to state – in some, the property boundary (beyond which the land, submerged or not, is owned by the state) is the mean high tide line and others the low tide mark (meaning that the public only have the right to walk in the water). And whether or not you are a ‘littoral owner’ with ‘littoral rights’ is also a vexing issue:
It is not necessarily true to assume that anyone owning “oceanfront” or “inlet front” property is a littoral owner with littoral rights. Whether someone is a littoral property owner depends upon whether the ocean or inlet forms at least one boundary of the property. In order to be a littoral owner, the oceanfront owner’s title must run to the mean high water mark.3 If the mean high water mark is not one of the legal boundaries it is not littoral property and there are no littoral rights associated with it, even if the land appears to front the ocean or inlet.
If the property is littoral, then the property owner has the legal right of immediate and direct access to the ocean.
And that legal right of ‘immediate and direct access to’ may also include ‘contact with’ the ocean. All of this runs straight into the controversies over public access and the definition of lands held in ‘public trust’ which is in turn governed by the laws of ‘public easement’. It is arguments around these laws that have led to endless lawsuits in which property owners fight for the right to keep the public off ‘their’ beach.
This is all very well if the beach would only stay where it is and has always been. But of course the beach never stays where it is, changing sedately with tides, waves and sand supply or violently with storms and hurricanes. Beach changes as a result of the sand supply being cut off can take place naturally, or, more often than not, by man-made interventions and disruptions to the natural coastal system.
This is where the lawyers become very interested in the rate of geological processes and develop a series of doctrines accordingly, including the doctrine of avulsion. Not only do they transfer a process of river behaviour to the beach, but, by declaring avulsion to be rapid and sudden, distinguish it explicitly from erosion. In the view of the Florida Supreme Court
“Avulsion” is a sudden and perceptible loss or addition to land by the action of water. In contrast to the doctrines of erosion, reliction, and accretion, the doctrine of avulsion requires the boundary between public and private land to remain at the MHWL as it existed before the avulsive event. Because hurricanes can cause avulsion, with sudden and perceptible shoreline changes, the boundary between private and public property does not change with the changes in the shoreline caused by storms.
The quagmire is immediately apparent. If the rate at which shoreline change occurred is key to the legal outcome of a case, there is plenty of room for wrangling and nit-picking:
Sometimes, courts facing disputes over lost beaches resolve the question by finding that the allegedly avulsive event was erosive instead. Whether something is erosion or avulsion turns out to be a thorny factual issue. Where there is a question of whether a particular shift in shoreline is erosive or avulsive, there is a presumption of erosion, which is overcome if the loss occurred suddenly. The test used in Texas, for example, to distinguish erosion from avulsion is to call erosion any situation where “though the witnesses may see, from time to time, that progress has been made, they could not perceive it while the progress was going on.” In Texas, even storm-related losses have sometimes failed to overcome that presumption. More often, courts have declined to find whether a loss of shoreline was erosive or avulsive and have decided cases on other grounds.
To a geologist or coastal sedimentologist, this is laughable, but for the lawyers, property owners and governments it’s deadly serious, with huge amounts of money at stake. And then there’s the doctrine of accretion that recognises that beaches sometimes build up seaward and, if the property owner’s rights are ambulatory, then their property is extended. But what if the accretion takes place as a result of artificial beach nourishment in the wake of a storm-related avulsive (or erosional) event? Here, things become very tricky indeed – the high tide mark is moved, the property owner may lose their littoral rights to ocean contact and the undesirable public may suddenly gain access to the new beach in front of the mansion. I won’t even begin to summarise the endless and expensive lawsuits that have resulted in this way from beach nourishment. Beach nourishment may be debatable as a sustainable means of managing the coast, but its intention is clear: to protect the beach and property. Despite this, residents sue the nourishers – and, even worse, this then becomes a constitutional issue, for the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that private property may not be taken for public use without just compensation. The private property may now be completely submerged, but…
You may, dear reader, not be able to take much more of this, and I’m not sure I can, but, believe it or not, I have only highlighted a few of the issues. Continue, if you would like, with a case described by the New York Times that makes for interesting reading, as does a recent post-Sandy case (involving Governor Christie, always good value).
And I have just remembered how I got into this: Sand Rights. I had come across an article from years ago titled ‘Sand Called a Resource in Jeopardy’ which, hardly surprisingly, caught my eye. The principle has also been covered by the New York Times. Californian attorney, Katherine E. Stone, was attempting to revive a theory that “is rooted in English common law and legal notions that date to the Roman Empire.”
It holds that sand, like other natural resources, is a public good that should be common to all people. The theory, which has gained credence among engineers, environmentalists and marine scientists, maintains that those who benefit from disrupting sand cycles should be responsible for correcting the damage.
"The beach is the same as a sort of environmental commons," said Ralph Faust, legal counsel to the California Coastal Commission. "It belongs to everyone."
Although the so-called public trust doctrine has been employed in efforts to fight smog, protect drinking water supplies and save Mono Lake, so far courts have not applied it to sand. Attempts by the Legislature to protect sand also have failed, Stone said.
This enlightened view, promoted by the more creative wing of the legal profession, seems to have got absolutely nowhere in the intervening twenty-two years, but the lawyers continue to go to the beach with enthusiasm.
[For those who have the energy to pursue this further, I found useful, and have quoted from, the summaries for North Carolina, a paper titled ‘Where’s the beach? Coastal access in the age of rising tides’, and ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Coastal Property Rights: A Massachusetts Case Study’.]