Who owns NC beaches? Case puts public access in jeopardy

Wrightsville Beach is crowded with thousands of vacationers.
Wrightsville Beach is crowded with thousands of vacationers. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Your right to enjoy North Carolina’s public beaches is in jeopardy because of a major case before the N.C. Supreme Court – the outcome of which could dramatically affect our state’s tourism economy.

In the case Nies v. Town of Emerald Isle, a New Jersey couple who bought a $1.3 million luxury vacation home on North Carolina’s coast effectively are asking the N.C. Supreme Court to bar sunbathers, swimmers, surfers, walkers, readers, kite-flyers, ball-tossers, fishers, families, emergency vehicles, trash collectors, lifeguards and safety patrols from the dry sandy beach in front of their house.

They want the state’s Supreme Court to overturn a unanimous 2015 N.C. Court of Appeals ruling, a 2014 trial court ruling, several state statutes and centuries of North Carolina common law and custom that have given everyone the right to freely use and enjoy our state’s beaches from the foot of the sand dunes to the edge of the ocean.

State statutes enacted before the Nieses bought their vacation home note that public beach access is “part of the common heritage of the people of this state” and that “the public (has) made frequent, uninterrupted, and unobstructed use of the full width and breadth of the ocean beaches of this state from time immemorial,” regardless of who owns the underlying or adjoining land.

As noted in the Court of Appeals’ ruling last year (written by the court’s veteran chief judge), “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.”

And yet that ancient right is imperiled at our state’s highest court. Gov. Pat McCrory, Attorney General Roy Cooper, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the N.C. Coastal Resources Commission, the N.C. Coastal Federation, the N.C. Wildlife Federation and dozens of coastal communities have urged the Supreme Court to uphold the public’s right to reach and use our beaches. They cite the case’s potential harm to public welfare, public safety, law enforcement, wildlife, fisheries, beach nourishment and local government services.

The private nonprofit N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition, of which we are members, and the North Carolina Vacation Rental Managers Association filed a legal brief in the case pointing out its serious threat to North Carolina’s $22 billion tourism economy – which employs more than 211,000 North Carolinians, supports about 45,000 businesses and generates almost $2 billion a year in state and local tax revenue.

If the public could no longer visit, relax and recreate on North Carolina’s beaches from the water’s edge to the sand dunes, then our thriving coastal tourism would collapse. This is a crucial issue for North Carolina’s economy and its regional, national and global appeal. We hope the Supreme Court will uphold the public’s traditional right to use and enjoy our state’s beaches.

A statewide survey we commissioned last month found overwhelming public support for keeping North Carolina’s beaches open:

▪ 83 percent said they would be less likely to visit beaches if only beachfront property owners could use the dry sand beach in front of each property.

▪  76 percent said they would be less likely to visit beaches if they lost the right to walk on and enjoy them, or if workers could no longer clean them.

▪  75 percent said beachfront homeowners should not be able to prevent vacationers, lifeguards and emergency crews from using the beach.

▪  79 percent said they would be less likely to visit beaches where lifeguards were no longer available.

▪ 65 percent said they believe beachfront property ends at the sand dunes, and 74 percent said they think that’s where the property line should be.

These compelling poll findings confirm most people’s common-sense understanding: North Carolina’s renowned beaches are public. For our state to prosper, it’s essential to keep them free and open to residents and visitors alike.

Rolf Blizzard, chairman of the N.C. Travel and Tourism Coalition, is vice president of Turnpike Properties, based in Winston-Salem. Coalition board member Carol Lohr is executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority.