What are riparian rights?

by dirk schwenk

Piers, Waterfront and Riparian Rights

To hear Mr. Schwenk discussing riparian rights on Real Estate Today Radio – click here.

When you own waterfront, you get more than just property.   You get a view, you get certain risks (like flooding and erosion) and you get what are known as riparian rights.   A waterfront owner does not own the water, and does not own the land under the water, or even the land below the tide-line, but does own access to the water.   Such a right, however, can be encroached upon by a neighbor’s pier, or transferred to a community association for the rights of the community, or otherwise impeded. These situations can create great conflict within a community, and have grave and permanent implications to the economic and personal interests of property owners. The text below provides a general overview of riparian rights, based on Maryland law.  Riparian rights in the Eastern United States are very different from those in the West, and this article focuses on the East  For specific questions, please contact us directly.

Maryland’s Court of Appeals has described riparian rights as follows:

“It is well established that the title to land under navigable water is in the State of Maryland, subject to the paramount right of the United States to protect navigation in the navigable waters.

The owner of the fast land, however, has a common law right to land formed by accretion adjacent to the fast land and has the right of access to the navigable part of the river in front of his fast land, with the right to make a landing, wharf or pier in front of his fast land, subject, however, to general rules and regulations imposed by the public authorities necessary to protect the rights of the public.

When the statutory law grants the right to a riparian owner to extend his lot or to improve out to the limits prescribed by the public authorities, the riparian owner receives a ‘franchise-a vested right, peculiar in its nature but a quasi property of which the lot owner cannot not be lawfully deprived without his consent.’

When the lot owner makes improvements in front of his lot, complete title then vests in him in the improvements provided it is in front of his lot and does not appropriate the riparian rights of his neighbors.”

Parsing the language, one finds the following principles.

1. The State owns the land under the water, and the United States has an overriding interest in preserving public navigation.

2. The waterfront property owner has the right to accretion (such as a beach deposited by currents) and access, but a government may regulate access such as piers and wharves to assure that public rights are protected.

3. The right to extend and improve, where granted, transfers with the property.

4. The right to extend and improve does not allow a landowner to intrude on his neighbor’s rights.

5. The riparian owner has the “right of access” to and from the waters.

Since everyone has neighbors, the relative rights of one’s neighbors can become an issue, as can the extent of the government’s right to regulate. And such issues can and do evolve into open disputes. If you find yourself in conflict, there are some immediate steps that must be taken. First, be aware that your rights could be foreclosed by the statute of limitations. In Maryland, the general statute of limitations is 3 years. In some cases, however, a contract may extend or shorten the period in which action must be taken. It is even possible (through a doctrine known as adverse possession) for title to pass after 20 years of possession. Second, document the facts: take pictures; obtain copies of and permit applications; find public records. Many cases are determined by who marshals the facts first – the head start can be crucial. Also – and this may need to be your first step – consult a lawyer. A lawyer’s time can be expensive – but not when compared to the cost of losing forever the rights attendant to waterfront property.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: