Common Law & Statutes

What are background legal principles governing coastal land ownership and access rights?

Virginia is one of only a few states in which coastal property owners own land out to the mean low tide line. These ownership interests are subject to a centuries-old public easement for "fishing, fowling, hunting and taking of oyster and other shellfish," however. In most other coastal states this intertidal land is owned by the state in trust for the public under the public trust doctrine.

The right to own property and exclude others from it is a fundamental feature of U.S. law. Under Virginia common law, coastal property owners may prevent people from gaining access to the shoreline of their land. Gaining unauthorized access – either perpendicularly or horizontally to the shore – may be trespassing for which one may be liable in court.

The government has authority under its police powers to make laws protecting the welfare of its citizens, including regulating lands next to beaches and shores. Under the public trust doctrine, the government is obliged to act on behalf of the public to protect publicly-owned submerged lands below the mean low tide line, and publicly owned natural resources such as fish, bivalves, and seaweed that might be extracted from the shore. In Virginia, the Virginia Marine Resource Commission is the state agency responsible for stewardship of Virginia's marine and aquatic resources and protectors of its tidal water.

The U.S. Constitution and many state constitutions also give the government the right to take private property under the power of eminent domain but only if the landowner receives appropriate compensation. Sometimes the government’s attempts merely to regulate behavior on or use of land goes so far as to amount to a "taking" requiring the government to pay the landowner for the lost value of the land.

More on eminent domain and takings.

More on land ownership and trusts.

Who owns the shore in Virginia?


Virginia is one of only a few states in which coastal property owners can own land out to the mean low tide line. These ownership interests are subject to a centuries-old public easement allowing the public to use the intertidal zone for the limited purposes of "fishing, fowling, hunting and taking of oyster and other shellfish."


In most other coastal states the intertidal land is owned by the state in trust for the public under the public trust doctrine. This generally entitles the public to use the intertidal zone for recreational purposes as well as such things as fishing and navigation.

What state statutes are relevant to access issues?

State laws, code and regulations affecting public access to the shore include:

Federal laws affecting public access to the shore include:

Where can I get more information?

For more information on basic legal principles as they relate to the public’s rights to the intertidal zone, the public trust doctrine, “fishing, fowling and navigation,” and court cases related to these issues, please see: