The Columbia River fence is legal even though the Willamette River fence is not

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Explain the difference in property laws along the Oregon and Washington waterways

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A homeowner’s fence sticking out into the Willamette River has sparked a debate about property rights in Oregon — but in Washington, the laws surrounding the issues are completely different.

Earlier this week, KOIN 6 News found that homeowners who built a fence down to the Willamette River in Clackamas County are now required to remove part of it to gain access to the river, according to the Lands Department of Oregon.

The reasoning behind the removal is that in Oregon, the public has the right to access beaches and shorelines along waterways. ODSL said the owners do not have the right or permits to erect a fence on the river banks and in the river, and removing part of it will not only restore access to the public, but will also ensure that salmon can have safe passage through the waterway.

Viewers contacted KOIN 6 News about a similar fence in Vancouver that plunges into the Columbia River. We learned, however, that Washington’s laws are very different in this regard.

An illegal fence in Oregon compared to a legal fence in Washington. (KOIN)

“In Oregon, I know everything is still publicly owned along the river banks and so forth, and so it’s accessible,” said Joe Smillie of the Washington Department of Natural Resources. “Washington side? Not really.”

Washington probably has the most unusual public beach access rules of any western state. While most states, including Oregon, define the limit of land available for private ownership at high tide, Washington allows private ownership of land up to the low water mark.

That’s why the Washington Department of Natural Resources says the fence in Vancouver is legal.

“It’s private property,” Smillie explained. “There are stretches all along the river where these bed lands have been sold off and the river banks have been sold off and into private hands.”

It is a holdover from the early days of the state, when loggers and shellfish farmers were allowed to purchase tidal areas from the government.

“We were one of the few states in the country that sold bed land and went all the way back to about the 1960s,” Smillie said. “They needed revenue and people wanted to buy, so we sold about 70% of our public water land.”

Although the state no longer allows people to purchase tidal areas, many areas of the beach have been passed down from generation to generation and remain private property. Additionally, beach and shoreline owners are permitted to build private piers and other structures – such as a fence – along public waterways.

Even if the fences aren’t in place, Washington officials are reminding the public that it’s important to know where you’re walking because you could be on private property.

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