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Sailors can bring back beach launching by saving access to the water

2013 June 17

How many times have you heard a graying sailor reminisce about beach-launching their dinghy as a kid? It's a common story, but it almost never happens today. The sailors of the past could do it, in large part, because the water was as much theirs as anyone else's.

In every city near water in America, battles are raging between private developers and those who offer, or hope to offer, access to sailing. The stakes are high, with consequences that should concern all sailors.

Early settlers chose the intersections of America's navigable waterways, like where rivers meet rivers, lakes or oceans. Safe harbors, where boats might dock and transfer goods, were especially attractive. Shipping and fishing spawned industry and cities expanded, often along shorelines. You can see examples from Tampa to Cleveland, San Diego to Seattle, among hundreds.

To ensure that waterways would not be privately appropriated and that water withdrawals would be fair, the Public Trust Doctrine was established into Common Law in 1892. States have their own prescriptions, but generally the focus is on protecting public access to navigable, potable and recreational water, beaches and shorelines, and some land, minerals and animal populations.

Public Trust Doctrine straddles ideology. On one hand, it is progressive and civic. Everyone has access to water and it is free, or at very low cost. On the other hand, the economic benefits of development are massive. On the edges of public resources we find the most vibrant commerce and the highest property values.

In the wake and the spirit of the law, parcels of shoreside land were preserved as parks in cities. They were an instant hit, helping cities become centers of wealth. People packed the beaches because the views were good, the air was clean, the water was refreshing, and it was often possible to launch or moor a sailboat for a small or no fee. Markets sprung up nearby. Homes within walking distance were coveted. Recreational sailing was popularized in these places.

Today, folks who want to spend their weekends sailing can form sailing centers or yacht clubs and meet on prime waterfront land because of the Public Trust Doctrine.

Yacht clubs generally fall into two camps: those who tip-toe a fine line between exclusive access and compliance with these rules, and those whose members are adept custodians of the Public Trust Doctrine, using it to leverage their mission and advocate for the sport.

Sailing centers have it a bit easier. These not-for-profit organizations offer sailing instruction from public land in mutually beneficial contracts with city governments. The city gets a sailing program for its citizens. The sailing center gets a place to launch its boats.

In any case, whether we launch a sailboat from a public dock, tie up in a marina, drop an anchor in a cove, sail from a yacht club or learn to sail at a sailing center, the right to float a boat off premium waterfront land is provided by the Public Trust Doctrine.

Fast forward to the housing bubble and economic downturn that have altered the landscape. As demand for land shot up in the 1990s and early 2000s, the value of the loveliest land, like city shorelines, increased the quickest. Prime condominiums and office towers went up as close to the water as possible. Not to be outdone, public marinas expanded services and overhead.

Many offered floating docks, pools and spas, cable TV and wireless internet, and funky restaurants serving margaritas where you might catch a Jimmy Buffett impersonator. Seeking ever more traffic, and the tax windfall that comes from it, city councils developed a habit of granting land use exceptions. Stroll most retail boardwalks, visit a beachside theme park or explore a specialty nautical museum featuring anchors and touchscreen displays, and you are the consumer and yours is the wallet that these enterprises attract.

Then came the economic downturn. Facing budget shortfalls, municipalities, thinking of docks as lucrative profit centers, began raising slip and mooring fees, even as demand dropped. So the waterfront public park is, for all practical purposes, no longer a park. Today, it is a means for cash-strapped cities to cover other losses.

Nationwide, the price to tie up a sailboat has risen eight times faster than inflation. Some cities no longer have public docks, having handed them over to contractors to run, sometimes on restrictive terms. For sailboat owners, it can seem impossible to find a mooring (I've seen 30-year waiting lists in some New England harbors). The perception that sailing is elitist, at least in terms of access, is becoming a reality as the waterfront is chipped away.

Mark Naud, who practices environmental and land-use law and advocates for the sailing center in Burlington, Vermont, says that the war has just begun and early battle reports are mixed. On one hand, the laws are strong. He's concerned, however, that the civic, cultural and economic genius of the Public Trust Doctrine has been forgotten. Not many of us stand up in defense of broad water access because we don't understand that we have it.

Sailing centers, he contends, can make a difference.

"Sailing centers embody a modern utilization of the Public Trust Doctrine," he said. "The laws make it possible to have sailing centers and sailing centers provide access, in the spirit of the laws. Sailing centers teach sailing and help people play on the water in boats, but they also teach us that we all own these remarkable resources, and that as owners, it is in our interest to care for them."

How many times have you heard a graying sailor reminisce about beach-launching their dinghy? It could happen again, if we rally in support the Public Trust Doctrine, ensuring that the water is as much the kid's as anyone else's.