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A Fight Over Beach Access
Two families in Maine are fighting over access to the beach in front of their homes. One family claims it's common land, while the other believes they own the beach.
In a seaside neighborhood in Maine, sun, sand, and a legal feud over property rights collide. Popham Beach, a slice of coastal paradise, has long been a cherished getaway for families. But what happens when that sandy haven becomes the center of a property rights dispute? Two neighboring families, the Hills and the Tappens, have been in the middle of a heated battle for beachfront access.
It all started when the Hill family, who have been vacationing there since the 1940s, received a stern letter from their neighbors, the Tappens, in April 2021. The Tappens claimed the Hills and their guests were trespassing on their property and demanded they cease and desist. The root of the problem? Property rights. The Hills believed they had a right to access the beach in front of their cottage, viewing it as common property within the community, but then they received this letter from their neighbors:
“It has come to our attention that you and/or your guests, tenants, or invitees, have been crossing the property and/or using the beach. Kindly cease and desist from all further use of this property and kindly instruct your tenants and guests to do the same.”
Property Rights: A Precious Asset
Property rights are the cornerstone of any functioning market-based economy. They define who owns what and who can use it. In Popham Beach, these rights are at the heart of the dispute between the Hills and the Tappens. The Hills had long considered the beach a common area, accessible to all within the subdivision until the Tappens sent that letter asserting they own the beach property in front of their houses:
Herein lies the center of the controversy: property rights. The Hills believed they had a right to access the beach in front of their properties. Over the years they built a boardwalk, a deck, a ramp, and a shed. The Tappens want it all gone because they say it was built on land that they purchased a few years ago. While it may look to be a silly debate over property lines, it has big implications for whether someone can own property that a group of people in an area have long considered common land.
The issue appears isolated to these two feuding families. Others in the subdivision have their own beachfront access. The neighborhood is half a mile from Popham Beach State Park, which is open to everyone. The Hills are arguing that they have a “prescriptive easement” claim to the beach because they’ve used the property for so long that everyone in the neighborhood is entitled to access the beach regardless of who owns the rights.
The Coase Theorem: Negotiating Solutions
How would an economist settle this dispute? Enter the Coase Theorem, an idea developed by British economist Ronald Coase. This theorem suggests that when property rights are clearly defined, and transaction costs are low, private parties can negotiate and find efficient solutions without government intervention. It’s often the textbook solution for feuding neighbords who can’t seem to get along.
If this really were just a dispute over property lines, the Hills and the Tappens could sit down and negotiate in good faith, they might be able to find a mutually beneficial solution. The Hills and Tappens would engage in a negotiation process to determine access rights, potential compensations, or restrictions. The goal is to reach an agreement that maximizes the value of the beachfront property for both parties.
Transaction costs, like legal fees and time, are crucial in these sorts of negotiations. If they are manageable, the Coase Theorem suggests that both parties can reach an efficient outcome that benefits everyone involved.
Challenges and Realities
But hold on, it's not as straightforward as it sounds. Real-world applications of the Coase Theorem can be tricky. The Popham Beach case comes with its set of challenges. The two families did try to negotiate access, but those negotiations fell through. Hence they’re heading to court. The Tappens were willing to allow the Hills access to the beach in front of their cottage if they paid them $30,000 each summer. The two couldn’t come to an agreeable solution, but perhaps it was doomed all along.
The Coase Theorem can be successful if there are clear property rights. It can’t be used to determine property rights. The Hills are arguing that the beach is common property, and shouldn’t belong to any one family. The Tappens believe they hold the property rights because they purchased that land a few years ago. A Maine court will need to determine who holds the right to the land, and thus who will be able to access the beach next summer.
This isn't just a story about beachfront property. The Popham Beach dispute mirrors property rights battles worldwide. It forces us to think about how communities manage common areas and the role of government in property disputes. Many communities have common areas—shared spaces or resources used by residents. Understanding how property rights are defined and enforced in these areas can shape communal living and resource management. It’s a dispute that’s been going on for decades.
As the Popham Beach dispute unfolds, it serves as a captivating case study in property rights and the potential limitations of the Coase Theorem. While negotiations may be the key to a resolution, the legal complexities underscore the challenges of applying economic theory to real-world disputes.
Property rights, a cornerstone of economics, continue to shape the way individuals and communities interact with each other. Whether it's a tranquil beach or a bustling city, the question of who holds the rights and how they are enforced can impact our economic and social landscape.
Maine’s “general coastline” runs just 228 miles [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]
During 2022, Maine State Park campgrounds recorded over 319,000 visitor nights and more than 3.28 million visits to its 48 parks and historic sites [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry]
There are an estimated 16.43 million acres of public land across the U.S. that are landlocked by private properties [Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership]
Ronald Coase won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1991 “for his discovery and clarification of the significance of transaction costs and property rights for the institutional structure and functioning of the economy” [The Nobel Foundation]