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Beach Rights: State Laws Control Boundaries - Until they Don't...

This post is comprised of a series of quotes from the U.S. Supreme Court decision “Hughes v. Washington” 389 U.S. 290 (1967). It deals with riparian and littoral rights incident to upland property owners.


The question for decision is whether federal or state law controls the ownership of land, called accretion, gradually deposited by the ocean on adjoining upland property conveyed by the United States prior to statehood…

While the issue appears never to have been squarely presented to this Court before, we think the path to decision is indicated by our holding in Borax, Ltd. v. Los Angeles, 296 U.S. 10 (1935). In that case we dealt with the rights of a California property owner who held under a federal patent, and in that instance, unlike the present case, the patent was issued after statehood. We held that “the question as to the extent of this federal grant, that is, as to the limit of the land conveyed, or the boundary between the upland and the tideland, is necessarily a federal question. It is a question which concerns the validity and effect of an act done by the United States; it involves the ascertainment of the essential basis of a right asserted under federal law.”

a dispute over title to lands owned by the Federal Government is governed by federal law, although of course the Federal Government may, if it desires, choose to select a state rule as the federal rule. Borax holds that there has been no such choice in this area, and we have no difficulty in concluding that Borax was correctly decided. The rule deals with waters that lap both the lands of the State and the boundaries of the international sea. This relationship, at this particular point of the marginal sea, is too close to the vital interest of the Nation in its own boundaries to allow it to be governed by any law but the “supreme Law of the Land.”

This brings us to the question of what the federal rule is. The State has not attempted to argue that federal law gives it title to these accretions, and it seems clear to us that it could not. A long and unbroken line of decisions of this Court establishes that the grantee of land bounded by a body of navigable water acquires a right to any natural and gradual accretion formed along the shore. In Jones v. Johnston, 18 How. 150 (1856), a dispute between two parties owning land along Lake Michigan over the ownership of soil that had gradually been deposited along the shore, this Court held that “land gained from the sea either by alluvion or dereliction, if the same be by little and little, by small and imperceptible degrees, belongs to the owner of the land adjoining.”



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