Sunday, March 26, 2023

Who owns the beach? The 1939 Wrightsville Beach Property Line gets updated state law

The 1939 line can be found on maps at the New Hanover County Register of Deeds (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)
The 1939 line can be found on maps at the New Hanover County Register of Deeds. (Port City Daily/Michael Praats)

WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH — In North Carolina beachfront property owners often have deeds stating that their property extends to the mean-high waterline, but in Wrightsville Beach, a decades-old state law actually gives the town possession of beachfront land, not property owners.

The 1939 Property Line, as it’s known in the town, was created by the North Carolina General Assembly in 1939; now, the General Assembly has passed a new law regarding the ownership of land by the Town of Wrightsville Beach helping to clarify the 80-year-old law on the books.

The 1939 Property Line explained

“The 1939 property line was created by an Act of the North Carolina General Assembly in 1939 in connection with a beach re-nourishment project at Wrightsville Beach. The effect of this Act was to vest ownership of the property lying east or seaward of the 1939 property line in the Town of Wrightsville Beach. Ownership of the property lying to the west or landward of the 1939 property line was vested in the adjoining property owner. Thus the Act established the easternmost property line for those oceanfront lots between Masonboro Inlet and Heron Street,” according to a town description of the act.

So how does the 1939 line actually affect property owners in Wrightsville Beach?

According to the town’s website, “The existence of this property line affects your property primarily in 2 ways. First, the 1939 property line is a property line and therefore it establishes the eastern boundary of your lot. Some older deeds for lots adjacent to the Atlantic Ocean include in the legal description property extending to the high water mark of the Atlantic Ocean. Even though your deed may include such a description, the eastern boundary of your property is the 1939 property line.”

The second effect of the 1939 line is the requirement of setbacks from which structures can be built.

“The required setback is controlled by the Town’s zoning ordinances. There is also a setback requirement imposed under the provisions of the Coastal Area Management Act. Whichever setback is more restrictive, that established by the Town’s zoning ordinances or that established by the Coastal Area Management Act, will apply to any structure that you build on your property,” the site concludes.

House Bill 52

Aerial of Mason Inlet taken in early 2003, property along the beach in Wrightsville Beach is actually deeded by the state to the town in some instances. (Port City Daily/Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

House Bill 52, or “An Act To Allow Lands Owned By The Town of Wrightsville Beach To Be Used For The Benefit Of The Public And To Allow The Town To Regulate Certain Private Businesses Operating On Those Lands,” became law during the General Assembly’s most recent session.

“The 1939 Law was originally adopted to transfer ownership of the land built up as a result of erosion control measures to the Town.  The 1939 Session Law was somewhat vague and could have been interpreted to restrict some of the activities or structures that the Town allows or provides on the oceanfront, Town Manager Tim Owens said.

“This would include public walkovers, lifeguard stands, gazebos, public bathhouses, showers, etc. The modified law allows for public related infrastructure to be considered in front of the 1939 line which are still subject to Federal or State regulations,” he continued.

But the language of the bill is full of jargon and legalese making it difficult to understand what exactly is meant by it. There is one aspect of it that grants the town the right to regulate private businesses on these lands, but don’t expect to see a fast food restaurant pop up beachside.

“As for the private business aspect of House Bill 52, this helps clarify the fact that the Town does allow and regulates business activities on the beach such as surf schools and chair rentals by oceanfront hotels,” Owens said.

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