For millennia, beaches have been considered public property. The legal principle of the public trust doctrine, which dates to the ancient Mediterranean world, has long held the seashore as public land. In 1892 the U.S. Supreme Court validated the public trust doctrine with its decision in Illinois Central Railroad v. Illinois, which ruled that land covered by tidal water belonged to the public, with the state acting as a trustee. States were obligated to maintain that trust and protect the public’s right to access the shore in perpetuity.
The earliest attempt to limit public access to the beach came in response to complaints about its use by the ‘colored help’ of white families on vacation.
Each state, however, marked the line separating public land from private property along the shore at a different spot—some drew the line at high tide, others at low tide, still others at the vegetation line—and devised different definitions of what constituted legitimate use of the public’s shore. Some states conceived of the public’s right to the shore in broad terms. Other states hewed closely to the public trust doctrine’s original intent. Massachusetts and Maine, for instance, held that the public’s right to the foreshore applied only to fishing and navigation; that private ownership extended down to the low-water line; and that the recreational use of private property was tantamount to an unconstitutional taking of private property. Connecticut drew the line between public and private property at the mean high-water mark, and its courts recognized swimming and recreation as legitimate uses of public trust lands.
While Connecticut’s supreme court upheld the public status of the foreshore, the actions of shoreline developers, backed by the state legislature, made it increasingly difficult for members of the public to enjoy their beach access rights. Beginning in the 1880s, wealthy families began building summer cottages along remote sections of shore in the state’s eastern half. In 1885 the state legislature granted a charter to a group of families who owned cottages in Old Saybrook. The charter gave the Fenwick Association the power to levy its own taxes and enact zoning restrictions. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, other small groups of families successfully petitioned the state legislature for charters to form what came to be known as private beach associations. Many of these early beach associations formed as an expeditious way of meeting the basic needs of summer homeowners in remote, undeveloped areas lacking in basic infrastructure and services.