The Public Trust Doctrine

Bay Image

The common law Public Trust Doctrine protects sovereign lands, such as tide and submerged lands and the beds of navigable waterways, for the benefit, use and enjoyment of the public. These lands are held in trust by the State of California for the statewide public and for uses that further the purposes of the trust. The hallmark of the Public Trust Doctrine is that trust lands belong to the public and are to be used to promote publicly beneficial uses that connect the public to the water.

The Public Trust Doctrine is steeped in history traceable to Roman law concepts of public rights and common property ownership that the air, the rivers, the sea and the seashore are incapable of private ownership because they are dedicated to public use. English common law refined this principle to state that the sovereign, i.e. the entity exercising authority, holds navigable waterways and the lands underlying them as a trustee for the benefit of the public for water-related uses. After the American Revolution, each of the original thirteen states succeeded to this sovereign role and became a trustee of the navigable and tidal waterways within its boundaries for the common use of the people. When California became a state in 1850, it too succeeded to the same sovereign rights and duties under the Equal-Footing Doctrine.

Beach Image

The foundational principle of the Public Trust Doctrine is that it is an affirmative duty of the state to protect the people’s common heritage in navigable waters for their common use. The traditional uses allowed under the Public Trust Doctrine were described as water-related commerce, navigation, and fisheries. As a common law doctrine, the courts have significantly shaped the Public Trust Doctrine in a number of important ways. Courts have found that the public uses to which sovereign lands are subject are sufficiently flexible to encompass changing public needs. The courts have also found that preservation of these lands in their natural state, so that they may serve as ecological units for scientific study, as open space, and as environments which provide food and habitat for birds and marine life, are appropriate uses under the Public Trust Doctrine. Courts have also made clear that sovereign lands subject to the Public Trust Doctrine cannot be alienated through sale into private ownership.

Another way that the courts have shaped the Public Trust Doctrine is by addressing the roles and responsibilities of the state in managing sovereign lands. In California, the Legislature, as both trustee and trustor of sovereign lands, has enacted provisions involving the uses of sovereign lands found primarily in the Public Resources Code and uncodified statutes involving local governments. These laws are in addition to those contained in the California Constitution.

The State of California has entrusted the Commission with administering the principles of the Public Trust Doctrine. The Commission manages the state’s sovereign public trust lands to promote and enhance the statewide public’s enjoyment of the lands and ensure appropriate uses of public trust lands.

History of the Commission

The office predating the Commission was first created in 1849 by the California Constitution and was originally known as the Surveyor General. Responsibilities of the Surveyor General, who was a constitutional officer elected by the people, included surveying and mapping the boundaries of state sovereign land, determining the state's mineral resource potential, and determining its agricultural and domestic animal population. The Surveyor General was also the engineer and commissioner of improvements of roads, canals, timber resources, draining of marshes and irrigation project development. The Surveyor General's office was abolished in 1929 and its responsibilities were transferred to the Department of Finance and its Division of State Lands.

In 1937, serious irregularities relating to the execution of a boundary line agreement in Malibu, settlement of trespass litigation that had been brought against Union Oil, and the issuance of permits for oil drilling in Huntington Beach were brought to light. Ultimately, a Division Chief and Petroleum Production Inspector were charged and dismissed from state service by the State Personnel Board. The necessity of an independent commission that makes its decisions in public was made apparent by the behavior of these individuals. As a result of this malfeasance and the significant controversy surrounding the state's management and development of its non-renewable oil and gas resources, and because of a desire to create a high level and autonomous board to make its decisions in a public forum, the State Lands Act was established in 1938 and the California State Lands Commission was created. The Commission was purposefully created as an independent body consisting of three members.

Since 1938, the Commission has consisted of these same three members: the Lieutenant Governor, the State Controller, and the Governor's Director of Finance. The combination of the two principal financial officers of the state with two state-wide elected officials provides the state with assurances that decisions made by the Commission will be fiscally sound and in keeping with the will of the people. Public awareness and participation is assured in that all Commission actions are taken at properly noticed public meetings.