Beach Walk? Maybe. Is it low tide?

Life’s a beach! I want to walk on the beautiful Georgia beach, but there is a big sign saying that I can’t! Kelly, tell me that isn’t true, tell me I can walk on the beach any time I want to.

As your trusted purveyor of truth, justice and The American Way, I am proud to tell you that, well, it all depends. Let’s assume we are talking about the ocean beach in Georgia. You know, with the pretty turquoise water, bright white sand and beautiful sunsets. Oh, yeah, that’s not Georgia. But we do have beaches. Georgia has 100 miles of shoreline, ranking 16th in the nation. What state has the most shoreline? Answer at the end of the column.

Some of that 100 miles of coastline is a beach. Can you walk all 100 miles of Georgia’s coastline? Yes, maybe, but you’re going to get wet. The Georgia Shore Protection Act states that the state of Georgia owns everything from the average of the highest spring tide downward. So, on March 21, wherever the average high tide ends up, that is the place where the property owners rights end and the public’s starts. So from that point down to low tide is accessible to the public in Georgia. That area between high and low tide is called the “foreshore” and is defined as the “strip of land that lies between the high and low water marks and that is alternately wet and dry according to the flow of the tide.”  Dorroh v. McCarthy, 265 Ga. 750, 462 S.E.2d 708 (1995). But that doesn’t cover what we call the beach, does it?

How many counties in Georgia have oceanfront? Bonus: Name the counties. Keep reading for the answer.

In Georgia, a “beach” means a “zone of unconsolidated material that extends landward from the ordinary low-water mark to the line of permanent vegetation”, according to OCGA 12-5-232(4). So the beach is that area from low tide up to the permanent vegetation. That can include a lot of sandy area that never sees high tide. Some of that “beach” is owned by the property owner, not the public, at least until you get to the high tide mark.

Now sometimes that public accessible area can be pretty large. At Jekyll Island, the difference between high and low tide is probably 100 feet. So even if the hotel kicks you off their sand, you have 100 feet of sand to play on at low tide. But at the northern end of the island, at the Villas, high tide comes crashing into the rocks that keep the Villas from washing away. During high tide, there is nowhere to walk without being on the private land of the Villas, and at low tide, there’s not much room either.

In summation, during high tide, the land owner owns the land up to where the water is licking at the shore. During low tide, the public has the right to use the area between the high and low tide marks as the portion of the beach that the State of Georgia owns. What a beach the law is!

One more thing. Just because a land owner “owns” the land doesn’t mean they can do what they want with it. There is a “dune field” that goes from the low tide line up to where the native trees are 20 feet tall. That field is subject to protection under Georgia law and permits are required before any changes can be done to that area.

Alaska has the most coastline, 5x as much as second place Florida. But you can’t swim that Alaska stuff unless you’re crazy. Six counties in Georgia have an Atlantic coastline: Camden, Glynn, McIntosh, Liberty, Bryan, and Chatham.

Kelly Burke, master attorney, former district attorney and magistrate judge, is engaged in private practice. He writes about the law, rock’n’roll and politics or anything that strikes him. These articles are not designed to give legal advice, but are designed to inform the public about how the law affects their daily lives. Contact Kelly at to comment on this article or suggest articles that you’d like to see and visit his website to view prior columns.

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