What is the Public Trust Doctrine?

Ken Black
Ken Black
Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

The public trust doctrine is a doctrine in real estate law that says some resources may be kept and held by the government for the overall benefit of the public. In reality, this doctrine may not only give the government the right to hold the land, but even take land in situations where it is deemed absolutely necessary. Though it is mainly applied to public waterways, it has been expanded to apply to nearly every form of natural resource.

Water is a very important focus of the public trust doctrine. This is because access to water is vital for a number a different reasons. It not only provides a good source of drinking water, it also provides opportunities for fishing and enhances quality of life through recreational opportunities. The public trust doctrine may be especially controversial when it comes to rivers which, because of their length, often run through multiple jurisdictions. Each one of those jurisdictions may have their own thoughts about proper management of the resource.

Land resources can also be a focus of the public trust doctrine. In some cases, the doctrine may be used as a justification to use land for road-building purposes. In other situations, the doctrine may be used as a justification to put a public park in a certain location. In the end, if the intention is to take land, and the property owner resists, the dispute may end up in a court, which may have to weigh the benefit for the general public against the landowner's property rights.

Even in cases where the public trust doctrine may be used as an opportunity to acquire land, the current property owner still has rights. Those rights often include the right to a fair market value for the land. If that cannot be agreed upon by the parties, then a court may have to make that determination. In some cases, a trade may be offered so that the owner receives a replacement for the land he or she is being forced to give up.

While these issues are mainly ones of real estate, the public trust doctrine has even been expanded beyond that. For example, it may even apply to issues such as air quality. In such cases, the doctrine may be used as a justification to impose penalties for air pollution on a company or entity in another jurisdiction, perhaps even in another country. These issues may be decided by an international court. Still, collecting penalties for such violations, even when the public trust doctrine is invoked, could prove to be very difficult.

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