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The Public Trust

The Public Trust Doctrine, established in constitutional law, provides certain public access rights and restrictions for waterways, tidelands, and lands created by filled waterways.

Oakland's Public Trust Lands

Oakland's waterfront includes several regions of filled land that are protected under the Public Trust.  The Port of Oakland serves as trustee of these lands under authority granted by the California State Lands Commission.

To get a sense of these trust lands,
view a 2001 Port of Oakland map of the Oakland tideland grants land. (1MB)

Note that this Port map does not reflect changes since its 2001 date of publication, including changes to a section of the Oakland Army Base
that was traded out of the trust in exchange for other land.

What is the Public Trust Doctrine?

As we work to revitalize our waterfront, development plans must conform to the Public Trust Doctrine.  The California State Lands Commission, which administers the Public Trust, has published California's Public Trust Doctrine and developed its Public Trust Policy .

To facilitate broader understanding of the Trust, the California State Lands Commission Staff developed this presentation of the Public Trust Doctrine , which was delivered in workshop settings in San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

The following excerpt is taken from a speech given April 20, 1998 to the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville by Sylvia McLaughlin, Save the Bay co-founder and longtime Public Trust steward.  The story of her contributions is presented in the April 22, 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article: How the bay was saved - Development threatened to fill it in.

Sylvia McLaughlin:

First of all, the Public Trust Doctrine is not simple nor is it simple to explain. As a non-­lawyer, all I can do is try.

History. For the history buffs among us, the Public Trust Doctrine comes to us from the 6th Century Roman Laws of Justinian which was a re-codification of the 2nd Century Greek philosophers. After inclusion in the Magna Carta in 1215, this Doctrine became part of English Common Law. From there, in 1776, it became a part of the legal structure of the 13 original colonies and of our Federal government. In 1850, when California became a state, it incorporated this English Common Law into its constitution. Interestingly, when Texas joined the Union, in 1845, it opted for the more Latin or Spanish/Mexican version of the Public Trust doctrine. It is basically the same but with a few significant differences in certain details, such as definition of the coastal boundary line. Under Common Law, the King of England or Sovereign was the Trustee for public rights in waterways. In this tradition, California's navigable waters or Sovereign Lands became State property and are held by the State in trust for all the people of the State.

Definition. In coastal areas, "Sovereign Lands" include both tidelands and submerged lands from the shore to 3 miles into the Pacific Ocean. Oil and gas wells within this area are therefore subject to the Public Trust. Tidelands are defined as lying between mean high tide and mean low tide. Submerged lands, naturally, are below mean low tide. The beds of navigable lakes and rivers are also Sovereign Lands, that is, under the Trusteeship of the Public Trust.

Authority of the Public Trust. The permitted uses of lands which come under the jurisdiction of the Public Trust are: commerce, navigation, fisheries, ecological habitat protection, water-oriented recreation and preservation of land in its natural condition.

Since 1938, the State Lands Commission has served as the administrator and guardian of these valuable public lands. The State Lands Commission is composed of: The Lieutenant Governor, the State Controller and the Director of Finance. Please remember this when you vote! For the last several administrations, the State Lands Commission staff has been under-funded and under-staffed. We are fortunate to have at the State Lands Commission a staff that is competent and dedicated, and that is a pleasure to work with.


Waterfront Facts


California State
Lands Commission
Policy Statements


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