The North Carolina Coastal Federation and North Carolina Wildlife Federation submitted an amicus brief on July 27 in support of public trust rights to access dry sand beaches. The Southern Environmental Law Center filed the brief on behalf of the two nonprofit organizations to the Supreme Court of North Carolina, which will soon hear the case Nies vs. Town of Emerald Isle.
Gregory and Diane Nies, who own a home on the oceanfront in Emerald Isle, contend that the town used what they say is “private property” for town vehicle traffic without proper permission. Emerald Isle sometimes uses a 20-foot lane on the dry sand beach for town vehicles, including police vehicles.
Emerald Isle, which is being represented by the Southern Environmental Law Center, argues that the 20-foot vehicle lane it used for town vehicles did not interfere with the Nieses’ use of the beach. The Nieses are represented by the top property rights defense group, Pacific Legal Foundation, which is arguing the case on the basis of property rights.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation and North Carolina Wildlife Federation support Emerald Isle’s position in the court case. The nonprofits posed two arguments in their brief — that North Carolina citizens have always had a right to access ocean beaches and that the Nies’ home state, New Jersey, has similar public trust rights.
The North Carolina Coastal Federation has always promoted public trust rights to dry sand beaches and has encouraged the development of CAMA public accesses along the coast with the help of state and local governments. Both organizations believe that the public should be able to enjoy dry sand beaches. The plaintiff’s position in this case violates public trust rights, which in turn could lead to limitations to public access to oceanfront for swimming, fishing, searching for shells and walking.
Their amicus brief cited several precedents, including four cases settled in North Carolina and one in New Jersey. It also cited a North Carolina constitutional provision, a North Carolina general statute and eight statutes and regulations from the state’s Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA).
“In their brief, Appellants seek to create law that has never existed — and in doing so erase an integral part of the common heritage of the state,” the amicus brief stated.
The state’s constitution recognizes the “common heritage” of North Carolina’s beaches, and in the 1974 inception of the Coastal Area Management Act, legislators made sure to preserve the public’s right to beach access. According to the brief, legislators took steps to protect the public’s right to dry sand beaches again in 1998 and in 2013.
In 1984, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the public’s right to dry sand beach access in the case Matthews, et al. v. Bay Head Improvement Association.
In its decision, the court noted that “[t]he complete pleasure of swimming must be accompanied by intermittent periods of rest and relaxation beyond the water’s edge.”
This case has been ongoing since 2014, when the Nies brought the case to trial court. Emerald Isle won in trial court and in the Court of Appeals on Nov. 17, 2015. In January, the couple petitioned the North Carolina Supreme Court, which granted a review of the case in April.