From the ocean beaches to the inlets and islands of the Puget Sound, western Washington State has water, and beaches everywhere. Many people dream of one day owning a piece of salt-waterfront property in our beautiful state. They imagine endless days of swimming, shell-collecting, kayaking and the like, right from their own beach. But did you know that not all waterfront properties come with their adjacent tidelands, which are a part of every beach? Even if you are not in the market for waterfront property, there may be things written here of interest to you. If you often walk on our beaches, or land your boat on the shore to let your dog off to visit the loo, you may have encountered an angry land owner at some point. When walking on a beach in a residential area in Washington you are likely trespassing. But by understanding the history and ownership of the beach tidelands you can be courteous about your visits.
What exactly are tidelands? Tidelands in Washington State are basically the beds of navigable waters, for simplification. Washington is one of the few states in the nation where tidelands can be privately owned. All tidelands were granted to Washington with statehood in 1889. Prior to this time, upland land owners may have been using the adjacent beaches for enjoyment and for shellfish cultivation, thinking that they owned the land all the way to the water. However, the state constitution made no provisions for the upland land owners to either own nor access the water across these lands. The state began selling off tidelands in 1890 to turn a profit, a practice it continued until 1971. The upland land owners then had an opportunity to buy the tidelands they had been using all along, as did other individuals and shellfish companies. Today 73% of tidelands in Washington State are privately owned.
Tidelands can be valuable because they can be used to cultivate shellfish like oysters, clams and geoducks. Some tideland owners cultivate their tidelands themselves for personal or less commonly, commercial use. Some will lease,or even sell their tidelands to shellfish companies or others. The benefit of doing so can be a harvest that can help to pay some of those expensive waterfront property taxes. But some beach cultivation is less attractive than others. Oyster bags on the beach don't look great, and geoduck tubes are also unsightly, especially if they aren't yours! Not all tidelands are productive, and therefore not desirable to companies looking to acquire them for harvest.
More interesting tideland tidbits:
Native American Tribal members are allowed to harvest from private tidelands (2nd class), a percentage of naturally occurring (not planted) shellfish.
The difference between 1st and 2nd class tidelands is not quality, it is distance to the city limits of an incorporated city. First class tidelands are those located within two miles (one either side) of an incorporated city. Second class tidelands are the rest.
Everyone has the right to use the surface of the waters. Therefore anyone can cross privately owned tidelands when the tide is in. Crossing privately owned tidelands when the tide is out is technically trespassing, and there has been controversy and media coverage over the restriction to these lands.
The state can issue permits for buoys on state-owned tidelands and bedlands as long as they do not interfere with boating traffic.
There are 1,300 feet of saltwater tidelands owned by the State that are considered to be public, though many are not accessible by land. They can be found on The Coastal Atlas Map, provided by the Washington Department of Ecology. This is a neat tool to find public beaches and more. By using the "Contents" tool at the top of the map, one can locate public beaches, find boat ramps, and see hydrography overlays such as sea level rise, historic shorelands and much more.)