Public Trust Doctrine

Natural Resources  

Downey Brand attorneys are at the forefront of public trust doctrine litigation. Our attorneys also regularly assist public agencies and private applicants as they seek to secure water rights, obtain leases, resolve title and boundary issues, or secure and administer granted trust lands. We also help clients address the risks associated with activities that may adversely affect trust lands, waters, or resources.

The common law public trust doctrine in California has long played an important role in protecting navigable waters and waterfronts for purposes consistent with the trust—commerce, navigation, fisheries, recreation, and conservation. The doctrine was extended substantially in 1983 by the California Supreme Court in National Audubon v. Superior Court, which for the first time limited the ability of the State to authorize surface water diversions without considering the public trust and protecting trust resources whenever “feasible.” In the land use context, the doctrine often arises when there are questions about the extent of public trust lands at a particular site, the allowable land uses for lands subject to the trust, or when the state has entered into a boundary line or exchange agreement to resolve trust land boundary issues.

Downey Brand attorneys work with clients in many different matters impacted by the public trust doctrine, including:

  • Advising public agencies and private applicants on the risks and trust duties associated with possible adverse effects of those activities on public trust lands, waters, and resources.
  • Assisting private companies, landowners, and public agencies with obtaining and renewing leases with the State Lands Commission for a variety of uses.
  • Assisting cities and ports with the management of existing trust lands granted by the State Legislature and in obtaining grants of additional trust lands.
  • Representing landowners in negotiations of trust termination or exchange agreements with the State Lands Commission to remove public trust easements from privately owned lands.