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FILE PHOTO: People sunbathe at a beach in Travemuende at the Baltic Sea, Germany, June 9, 2014. REUTERS/Fabian Bimmer/File Photo


FRANKFURT (Reuters) - The public should not be forced to pay to walk on Germany's beaches or swim in the sea, a federal court ruled, calling into question private beaches along the North and Baltic Sea coasts.

The coastal town of Wangerland, 170 km (100 miles) west of Hamburg, was sued by two residents of neighbouring towns who demanded it provide free access to its two North Sea beaches.

Wangerland's tourist office has largely fenced in the beaches, added facilities, playgrounds and lifeguards, and has been charging visitors a 3-euro ($3.57) entry fee during the summer season, with the exception of residents and tourists of the town itself.

Under German law, anyone is allowed to enter unused tracts of land, a provision meant to give the public access to the country's natural beauty and create opportunities for fresh-air recreation free of charge.

But a court in the state of Lower Saxony last year ruled in favour of Wangerland, saying the beaches in question were not unused but had been leased by the town for commercial purposes.

The federal administrative court said in its ruling published on Thursday the town could not charge visitors to go for walks on the beach or to swim in the sea, but could for using the facilities set up there.

"Claims to nearly the entire beach, and not only the areas needed to operate the business, put excessive limits on general liberty," the court said in a statement, partly overturning the lower court's ruling.

(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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