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Harness Property Rights to Protect Beaches

  • Reed Watson
  • Eliminating beach access is no way to make friends. Just ask Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems co-founder whose popularity fell to Donald Sterling levels after he closed the only road to Martin’s Beach, a cliff-rimmed surf break on California’s Half Moon Bay.

    But trampling the property rights of beachfront landowners in the name of public access is no way to encourage beach conservation either. The road Khosla closed runs through his property and one court has already upheld his right to lock the gate.

    People tend to take care of the things they own and neglect the things they don’t. That’s why no rational person in the history of the world ever changed the oil in a rental car.

    The same is true of beaches. Insisting on a policy of unlimited public access to all beaches everywhere achieves only one objective: the maximum use of every beach. Other worthwhile objectives, such as preserving the pristine character of certain beaches or maximizing the quality of each beach visitor’s experience, fall to the wayside.

    In some locations along California’s coast, locals already exclude non-locals from the best surf breaks to prevent congestion and destruction of the value of the resource — the waves. Separately, some entrepreneurial beachfront landowners charge fees for parking and other amenities, as did the previous owners of Khosla’s property. Excluding outsiders can be difficult however, particularly when the law mandates open access. As a result, the cost of accessing these “free” public beaches is queuing, crowding and conflict.

    Aside from eliminating the subsidies for coastal flood insurance, which encourages dense and risky coastal development, respecting the property rights of beachfront landowners — even the billionaires — is the best way to prevent congestion, maximize the quality of beach experiences and ensure long-term beach conservation.

    This link between secure property rights and environmental conservation is the essence of free market environmentalism, and it might also explain why Khosla, a green tech investor and renowned environmental advocate, purchased the land adjacent to Martin’s beach.

    Originally appeared in The New York Times on Monday, June 23, 2014.

    Written By
    • Reed Watson

      Reed Watson is the director of the Hayek Center for the Business of Prosperity and a professor of practice in the John E. Walker Department of Economics at Clemson University.

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