What Are State-Owned Tidal Waters and Marshlands?

By Terry West

The following article originally appeared in the September 1998 issue of the Georgia Policy Review. 

Based on the Public Trust Doctrine of law, the lands beneath the waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide are owned by the State, and held in trust for the benefit of all the people. The Public Trust Doctrine concept dates back to sixth- century Roman civil law, and provides that the seas, the shores of the seas, and the living resources within these waters are common to all mankind and are not understood to be the property of any man, but are instead public property for the use of any person. Roman civil law eventually influenced the legal system philosophy of all Western European nations. Most important to American jurusprudence, Roman civil law was adopted in substance by English common law with the implementation of the Magna Charta in 1215. As one of the thirteen original colonies, Georgia is a common law state, and as such, succeeded to the rights of the King of England in the waters, and the lands beneath, subject to the ebb and flow of the tide. A number of Supreme Court decisions throughout the years have upheld the fact that the tidal waters and marshlands of Coastal Georgia are owned by the State, in trust for the benefit of all people.

A valid Crown Grant from the King of England, or a grant from the Georgia General Assembly, are the only exceptions of State ownership of tidal waters and marshlands. These exceptions are very rare, and such claims must be certified by the State of Georgia, Department of Law. At one point in history, virtually the entire coastal area was conveyed to individuals via a Crown Grant by the King of England. Almost all of these Crown Grants contained stipulations which, if violated, nullified the conveyance and resulted in the granted property reverting back to public trust status. Some examples of such stipulations include regularized annual rice cultivation, sustaining grazing of lifestock, and requirements of male family members to serve in a branch of the armed forces. Persons claiming a valid Crown Grant to Georgia’s tidal waters and marshlands should assemble all documentation, including an unbroken chain of title to the lands of question dating back to the original Crown Grant, and submit this information to the State of Georgia, Department of Law for official verification.

While it is still a common practice throughout Coastal Georgia to convey through deed the adjacent tidal marshlands along with ownership interest in upland, in absence of a certified Crown Grant or State Grant, the tidal marshlands and waters are owned by the State of Georgia. All six of Georgia’s coastal county governments gladly accept payment of property taxes by individuals claiming ownership of tidal marshlands. The payment of property taxes does not support a claim of ownership to tidal lands and waters. Individuals may contact the respective county tax office and request removal of any State-owned tidal waters and marshlands from their tax assessment.

For more information on State owned marshlands and tidal waters, contact the Habitat Management Program at (912) 264-7218.

Terry West is program manager of Habitat Management Program,which serves as the regulatory arm of the Coastal Resources Division, responsible for administration of our Coastal Marshlands Protection Act and Shore Protection Act. Both Acts contain permitting process requirements as the primary means of controlling impacts to jurisdictional marshlands and beaches. This article is first in a series entitled, “Habitat Management in Georgia’s Coastal Area.” It is reprinted with permission of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources with appropriate credit given. 

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