Maryland Riparian Rights

Owning waterfront property can be a fantastic experience — the comforts of home with an exceptional view.  But there can be issues, and it important to know the relative rights and responsibilities that go with such property.  Property near water can be considered “waterview” or it can include “riparian rights.”  A waterview property has no control over the waterfront; may not have access to the waterfront; and may not be able to stop anyone from building or planting in the view.  Riparian rights, however, include ownership of the waterfront: “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.”

To secure riparian rights, one must have a deed that reaches the water (such as a lake, stream or Chesapeake Bay) and does not contain an express reservation of rights.  Direct and unfettered access to the water (and from the water) is the central right that makes riparian property, and also secures the other crucial issue — the ability to keep anyone from blocking ones view of the water.

Such rights, 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 (where consuming the water is key), so this is most applicable on the East Coast.  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.

Other Maryland decisions focus on the “right of access” as the most important issue — and it is.  Access is what is improved when building a pier; access is what is denied if someone else tries to build in front of ones’ waterfront property.

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, issues are complicated, and delay may be fatal.  In particular, if a neighbor seeks a permit that you believe interferes with your rights, action should be taken as early as possible.  There are issues on which the local zoning board has a large amount of discretion, and even a reviewing Court may have difficulty unwinding a local decision.