Preserving Public Access: The Public Trust Doctrine

  1. Civil Disputes
  2. Preserving Public Access: The Public Trust Doctrine

The Public Trust Doctrine is a legal principle that asserts certain natural resources belong to the public and must be preserved for future generations. In North Carolina, this doctrine has been recognized and applied to protect and manage vital resources.

The Public Trust Doctrine is rooted in the principle that certain resources, such as navigable waters, submerged lands, and their associated natural ecosystems, are held in trust by the government for the benefit of the public. In North Carolina, this doctrine is affirmed by common law and is bolstered by various statutes and regulations. It emphasizes the government’s duty to protect and manage these resources for current and future generations.

But how can this affect your everyday life? The Doctrine also supports public access to natural resources for recreational purposes. It ensures that individuals have the right to enjoy and benefit from these resources, including the use of beaches, waterways, and other public lands. Recognizing and invoking the Public Trust Doctrine can help bolster arguments for maintaining public access points, defending traditional uses, and challenging any actions that restrict or limit the public’s enjoyment of these resources. 

On the other end if you are a landowner who owns land that borders land protected by the doctrine you may not have the right to exclude people from using entering those lands. Severable examples have already played out in North Carolina Courts concerning the “Navigable Waters”. The definition of navigable waters has been found by the Supreme Court of North Carolina to be “all watercourses are regarded as navigable in law that are navigable in fact.” Fish House, Inc. v. Clarke, 204 N.C. App. 130, 133, 693 S.E.2d 208, 211 (2010). This means that if a waterway is navigable, then a court will assume it is navigable and apply the Public Trust Doctrine. A waterway is navigable if, in its natural state it can be navigated by a watercraft even if it has never been used by a watercraft. In conclusion, if a body of water can be considered navigable, The Public Trust Doctrine applies, and the water is held in trust by the State. 

If the water is held in trust by the state for use by the public the public has certain rights including “the right to navigate, swim, hunt, fish, and enjoy all recreational activities in the watercourses”. N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-45. This means that even if you own the land that borders the waterway, you have no right to exclude someone from using it under one of the rights laid out in N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-45.1.

While the Public Trust Doctrine provides a powerful framework for protecting natural resources and public access, it is not without its challenges. Balancing competing interests, addressing potential conflicts with private property rights, and navigating complex regulatory landscapes can pose legal complexities. If you have any questions concerning your rights to use public land or exclude others from your property contact King Law at 888-748-KING (5464) for a consultation. We have offices located across western North Carolina and upstate South CarolinaKing Law is here to serve you and help navigate this journey you are on.

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