As the world warms, rising seas and more intense storms threaten to reshape the American coastline. Climate change has already had a dramatic effect on US coasts. For example, from 2004 to 2009 the US lost 80,160 acres of coastal wetlands per year. Erosion and sea level rise will increasingly submerge coastal landscapes and have a significant impact on property ownership in the US. As that happens, these new realities will confront existing legal principles that may present challenges for governments trying to navigate climate adaptation options.
The common law principles of avulsion, erosion, accretion, and reliction have traditionally governed changes to coastal property lines. These principles have changed little for over two centuries. However, given the rapid pace of change facing US coastlines, these principles may not be enough to efficiently and equitably resolve questions of coastal property rights. Avulsion, in particular, is ripe for change. Avulsion refers to sudden, perceptible changes in land from water action (such as the subtraction or addition of beach due to a storm event). Most coastal states adhere to common law principles of avulsion, yet these principles may not be suited for a future where avulsive events occur regularly.
Ari Sillman, JD 2021, surveyed the state of the law in coastal states regarding the property law principle of avulsion. Read his white paper to understand the importance of this seemingly arcane legal principle and to review his chart of relevant cases and statutes by state.