Overview of Public Trust Doctrine


California became a state on September 9, 1850, and thereby acquired nearly 4 million acres of land underlying the State’s navigable and tidal waterways, known as “sovereign lands.” These tidelands and submerged lands, equal in size to Connecticut and Delaware combined, are overseen by the California State Lands Commission.
The Lieutenant Governor, the State Controller, and the State Director of Finance serve as ex officio members of the State Lands Commission. The Commission was established in 1938 and is authorized to ensure compliance with the terms of the relevant statutory grants. These grants encourage development of tidelands consistent with the public trust doctrine, and typically require grantees to reinvest revenues produced from the granted lands for trust purposes. Traditionally, public trust uses were limited to water-related commerce, navigation and fishing. In more recent years, however, the California Supreme Court has said that the public trust embraces the right of the public to use the navigable waters of the state for “bathing, swimming, boating, and general recreational purposes.” The law is sufficiently flexible to encompass changing public needs, such as preservation of the lands in their natural state for scientific study, as open space and wildlife habitat.
The essential obligation of the state is to manage the tidelands for the benefit of all of the people of the state. Uses that do not accommodate, promote, foster or enhance the statewide public’s need for essential commercial services or their enjoyment of tidelands are not appropriate uses for public trust lands. These would include commercial installations that could as easily be sited on uplands and strictly local or “neighborhood-serving” uses that confer no significant benefit to Californians statewide.
The California Constitution (Article X, Section 4) contains provisions providing protection similar to the common law public trust doctrine with respect to protecting the public’s access to and use of navigable waters. These sections were intended to prevent the lands adjacent to and under the navigable waters from being conveyed to private ownership in such a way as to interfere with the public’s rights. California Constitution Article X, Section 3, restricts the sale of tidelands.

Los Angeles Trust Grant

In 1911, the state granted to the City of Los Angeles control over all state tidelands and submerged lands in the San Pedro-Wilmington area “solely for the establishment, improvement, and conduct of a harbor... for all purposes of commerce and navigation.” In 1929, the purposes provision of the grant was revised to state “commerce, navigation and fishery.” In 1970, the purposes of the grant outside the Port area were greatly expanded, but the Port’s tidelands purposes were explicitly excluded from these broader purposes and remained limited to commerce, navigation and fishery.
California Assemblyman (now Congressman) Alan Lowenthal authored legislation, AB 2769 (2002), that made all Port trust lands subject to the broader purposes set forth in the 1970 amendment. The Lowenthal amendment became effective January 1, 2003. The broader purposes now allowed on all City tidelands, including Port lands, include the traditional commerce, navigation, and fisheries purposes, together with the 1970-added purposes, so long as those new purposes “comply with the terms of the trust and are matters of statewide, as distinguished from local or purely private, interest and benefit.”
These added purposes include: establishment of harbors, commercial and industrial purposes, airports, highways, streets, bridges, belt line railroads, parking facilities, transportation and utility facilities, public buildings, convention centers, public parks, public recreation facilities, small boat harbors and marinas, snack bars, cafes, cocktail lounges, restaurants, motels, hotels, protection of wildlife habitats, open space areas and areas for recreational use with open access to the public, and “any other uses or purposes of statewide, as distinguished from purely local or private, interest and benefit which are in fulfillment of those trust uses and purposes described in this act.”

Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners

Under the City of Los Angeles Charter, the five-member Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners has possession, management and control of all navigable waters, and all tidelands and submerged lands comprising the Port of Los Angeles. The Commissioners are appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the City Council for five-year terms. The lands and waters they control are known as the Harbor District. (The Harbor District is depicted in yellow on this map.)

Leading Cases

In City of Long Beach v. Morse, 31 Cal. 2d 254 (1947), the California Supreme Court articulated the limits of a trustee’s authority with respect to granted tidelands. The Court held that pursuant to a statutory trust grant of tidelands, the express provisions of the granting statute fix the uses which a tidelands trustee may make of the granted tidelands and the income from those lands. The Court reasoned that a tidelands trustee holds the lands in trust for all the people of the state and is restricted in the use of tidelands and their income to those purposes specified in the trust grant on the granted lands, purposes which are beneficial to the State as a whole. Thus the trustee may only use tidelands and tidelands trust funds for trust purposes set forth in the granting statute and may not authorize their use for other purposes.
In Mallon v. City of Long Beach, 44 Cal. 2d 199 (1955), the California Supreme Court considered a state statute which attempted to sever half of the oil and gas revenues of Long Beach from the public trust and transfer those revenues to a Public Improvement Fund for the City. The Supreme Court said that expenditures by the city of tideland trust funds for public purposes that were matters of a “municipal” character, e.g., “storm drains, a city incinerator, a public library, public hospitals, public parks, a fire alarm system, off street parking facilities, city streets and highways” were not “of such general state-wide interest that state funds could properly be expended thereon.” The Court concluded that such expenditures would violate the Gift Clause of the California Constitution.
Since Mallon was decided, the line between municipal affairs and matters of statewide concern has been blurred in a number of cases. For example, in People v. Long Beach, 51 Cal. 2d 875, 880 (1959), the California Supreme Court rejected a claim by the State that a lease at nominal cost for a YMCA facility located on tidelands constituted funding of a municipal activity in violation of the constitutional gift prohibition. Second, Mallon predates enactment of CEQA (in 1970) and the California Supreme Court’s decision in National Audubon Society v. Superior Court, 33 Cal. 3d 419 (1983), finding that the protection of environmental resources is encompassed within public trust principles. Finally, Mallon predates the Lowenthal amendment that significantly expanded permissible uses of the Los Angeles tidelands trust grant.