No one can own Lake Tahoe beaches and shoreline so “private beach” and “no trespassing” signs are untrue.
Jerry Pluto of South Lake Tahoe emailed the Reno Gazette-Journal — and law enforcement agencies and other media outlets — with a subject line: “Who owns the Beaches and Shoreline of Lake Tahoe?”
He wrote about being “harassed” by security officers, homeowners and property managers around Lake Tahoe and complained about signs saying “Private Beach,” “No Trespassing” and “Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”
His main argument is:
“Lake Tahoe is a United States Navigable Waterway and as such no one can own any of the beaches of Lake Tahoe up to 2 feet past the ‘HIGH TIDE LINE’ as per the Federal Navigation Act of 1892. There is in fact a Lake Tahoe Coast Guard station here based out of Tahoe City, Calif. So, simply put, the beaches and shoreline of Lake Tahoe are no different from the beaches all along the Pacific coastline from Southern California to Washington State, and the general public has a right to full access of it. In layman’s terms, what this means is that all along the entire 72-mile beach-front shoreline rim of Lake Tahoe, no one owns ANY of the beaches or shoreline. Period.”
Fact Checker got Jeff Cowen of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to explain some of the terms and geography that will come into play when evaluating Pluto’s claim.
Tahoe is a mountain lake that has a lone outlet at Tahoe City. This feeds into the Truckee River. There’s a 17-foot dam at the outlet.
When the term “low water” is used, as in low-water line, this is when the water is at the lake’s natural rim, as well as at the bottom of the dam.
“High water” is when the water is at the top of the dam. If there’s ever more water in the lake, then it just flows over the top without any controls.
“In drought years like in the 1990s and very likely what will happen this year, water will drop below the natural rim and will be below the low-water line,” Cowen said.
In the places where private property owners have land around Lake Tahoe, they own the land down to the low-water line. Beneath the low-water line, the states — Nevada and California — own the land, meaning this area is public.
Pluto notes that because the water level is currently low, some shallow beaches now have exposed public areas that stretch out toward the lake 60 feet or more, even as signs warn “trespassers” away.
One more important point: California and Nevada treat the area between the high-water mark and the low-water mark differently.
On the California side, a 1986 California state court decision — Fogerty v. State of California — created a public trust or easement between the low-water mark and the average high-water mark, which it set at 6,228.75 feet.
Sheri Pemberton, chief of external affairs for the California State Lands Commission, said: “A person can own the property where that public easement exists but the public has a right to access that land where the easement is. My understanding is it includes a broad spectrum of uses.”
These might include simply crossing it to get to a property on the other side but also swimming, having a picnic or watching fireworks, she said.
Although people’s property generally extends to the low-water mark on both states’ sides, Nevada has no such public easement.
Cowen said, “Private property is fully intact in Nevada, and (private property owners) have the ability to stop people from coming across the property or coming from the water and beaching and getting out of their kayak.”
The land above the high-water mark is private property with no public access in California and Nevada, he added.
But then there is Pluto’s claim about Lake Tahoe being designated a U.S. Navigable Waterway. It is.
TRPA has a document on its website that addresses this very fact: “(B)ased on the Federal Navigation Act of 1892, the entire lake, including the nearshore and foreshore, are navigable waters, where the public has the right to navigate.”
The act seems clear: The public has the right to navigate navigable waters. It’s talking about using a watercraft to navigate, not drinking beer and enjoying the lapping waves while sitting on the beach.
Cowen concurred with this interpretation — the lake area that’s open to the public is anywhere accessible while in a watercraft, and the act does not deal with people on foot or in a land vehicle.
He said the signs help people know there are boundaries.
“If you’re on a sandy beach with no demarcation, you don’t know when you’re on a public beach,” Cowen said. “It makes sense to put up a sign so people know that they can’t go up on sandy dunes and use people’s fire pits.”
Because Lake Tahoe is a U.S. Navigable Waterway, the public is allowed to navigate in a watercraft all the way around the lake, anywhere the water is navigable.
If you’re on foot, any land below the low-water mark is state-owned and you are allowed access. Between the high and low-water marks where the land is privately owned, the public can legally access it on the California side but not the Nevada side — and above the high-water line, the public is not allowed.
Signs limiting access can appear misleading if you don’t know which area they refer to. But it is incorrect to say no one can own part of a Tahoe beach.
Truth Meter: 2
Filed under: Lake Tahoe Lifestyles
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