Gregory and Diane Nies, a retired couple from New Jersey, own a beach place at North Carolina’s Emerald Isle, and they believe they own property that goes to the high water mark. To support that belief, they’re in a court case that is going all the way to the North Carolina Supreme Court.
At issue is a long-held principle in North Carolina when it comes to beaches: that the public has access to the flat sandy areas from the water up to the point of dunes at private homes. The Emerald Isle ordinance that is in question bars those who own beachfront property from putting up any beach equipment or structures “within an area 20 feet seaward of the base of the frontal dunes.”
Emerald Isle says the law is intended to ensure a clear lane on the upper beach so emergency vehicles can pass. But a larger issue is whether the public has a right to access those parts of the beach.
Most beach property owners have long accepted the idea that beach-goers who want to drive to a common area and then walk to the beaches are welcome to do so. The Nieses’ home state of New Jersey has different rules in terms of access, but North Carolina’s tradition should hold, as the state Court of Appeals ruled. That should have been the end of it, but now the case is headed to the N.C. Supreme Court, which interestingly didn’t have to take the case, given that the Court of Appeals ruling by three judges was unanimous.
With Republicans having a majority on the high court and the Nieses supported in their fight by a private GOP-leaning advocacy group, there’s a fear that Republican justices may have an eye on overturning the appeals court. That would be unfortunate. In fact, coastal communities believe it could be devastating to tourism.
Rolf Blizzard, chairman of the N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition, said if the appeals court decision is overturned, it would be disastrous for other beach property owners whose homes and rental properties are not on the ocean. Blizzard said, “If the public could no longer visit and relax on North Carolina’s beaches from the water’s edge to the sand dunes, then our coastal tourism would collapse.”
Credit Judge Linda McGee of the appeals court with a clear, common-sense opinion. She wrote in part that the “public right of access to dry sand beaches in North Carolina is so firmly rooted in the custom and history of North Carolina that it has become part of the public consciousness. Native North Carolinians do not generally question whether the public has the right to move freely between the wet sand and dry sand portions of our ocean beaches.”
That is 100 percent correct, and the fears of leaders of coastal communities about the consequences of a court ruling that limits beach access are well-founded.