Mathews v. Bay Head Improvement Association

The Facts

Plaintiff sued defendant asserting that defendant “prevented Point Pleasant inhabitants from gaining access to the Atlantic Ocean and the beachfront in Bay Head.”  Plaintiff asserted that the land along the beach was held in public trust and that “its right to use private property fronting on the ocean was incidental to the public’s right under the public trust doctrine.”  Defendant “controls and supervises” the beach property is owns and has employees, such as lifeguards and police to tend to the land.  However, there is a membership fee to access the beaches – with visitors and members paying a yearly fee.  People may walk through the beach, but only those with membership badges can stay on the beach from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.  The defendant association’s purpose is to “provide the beach for the residents of Bay Head.”

At trial, the court found nothing which would affirm the defendant’s status as a “municipal agency” and therefore nothing justified the conference of public privileges attached to the private properties owned by the defendant association.  The appellate court affirmed under the same reasoning.

The Issue

Whether the public interest in privately owned dry sand beaches is extensive enough to grant public access via the public trust doctrine.

The Holding/Reasoning

The public trust doctrine states that “the public has a right to use the land below the mean average high water mark where the tide ebbs and flows.”  The court extends this doctrine, stating that “the public must have access to municipally-owned dry sand areas as well as the foreshore.”  This is concluded because access to the submerged area necessitates access to the sanded area – the two are inseparable.

However, in the instant case, the land is privately owned.  The public has an interest in both crossing between sanded beaches and enjoying them for recreational use.  “… recognizing the increasing demand for our state’s beaches and the dynamic nature of the public trust doctrine, we find that the public must be given both access to and use of privately-owned dry sand areas as reasonable necessary.”  Private beaches may not prevent the public from exercising its rights under the public trust doctrine, which is their right to use the foreshore and sanded beach area.

The Association’s purpose and activities mirrored that of a municipality.  “… its purposes, relationship with the municipality, communal characteristic, activities, and virtual monopoly over the Bay Head Beachfront – the quasi-public nature of the Association is apparent.”  In excluding the public and requiring membership, the association acts in conflict with the public good and contrary to public policy.  Therefore, “the record in this case makes it clear that a right of access to the beach is available over the quasi-public lands owned by the Association.”


The court ordered the association to keep its beaches open to the public from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. and not charge an unreasonable fee to the public, but only one large enough to cover its costs.

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