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Is a private beach legal in California? Ask the lawyer

Q: We were at the coast and took a nice stroll along the shore. We saw a sign posted that read, “Private.”  We were not sure if we could continue. Is a private beach legal here?

A.M. Burbank

Ron Sokol
Ron Sokol

A: The California Constitution guarantees public access to California’s coast (Article X, Section 4). The longstanding California Coastal Act mandates “maximum access, which shall be conspicuously posted” to carry out the constitutional requirements.

The Coastal Act seeks to ensure that the public has the right to freely walk up to the mean high tide line, no matter who owns the property fronting the beach. If you can get there from the water, tidelands or an adjacent beach, research indicates, you are allowed to be there as long as you don’t venture onto the land above where high tide would be. A way of thinking about this is: you are OK where the sand is wet. Still, controversy and litigation over coastal access issues are not uncommon.

Q: While walking on a county beach, I cut my foot on broken glass. Stitches were needed. Is the county liable?

B.L., Playa Del Rey

A: The county (like other landowners), can be held responsible for dangerous conditions of premises it owns or controls that present a foreseeable risk of harm to a visitor. As with a department store or market, inspections and/or clean up of the premises may reasonably be expected, but the county cannot be deemed to have notice of any and every danger at all times.

Bottom line, if you can show the county had actual or constructive notice that there was broken glass in the sand, and did nothing to remedy or warn about it, or allowed the condition to persist for an unreasonable period of time, then maybe you have a claim. My gut sense is that it is going to be challenging. And, if you decide to pursue the county, remember that you first have to give timely administrative notice, which typically means within six months of the incident.

Ocean safety

The California Department of Parks and Recreation has useful information online about ocean safety.  Go to, or in your web browser, type, “Ocean safety, California State Parks.”

Ron Sokol has been a practicing attorney for over 35 years, and has also served many times as a judge pro tem, mediator, and arbitrator.  It is important to keep in mind that this column presents a summary of the law, and is not to be treated or considered legal advice, let alone a substitute for actual consultation with a qualified professional.

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Source: Orange County Register

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