Questions and Answers: What are Riparian Rights?
In Annapolis Maryland there are many waterfront homes. According to the Anne Arundel County Planning and Zoning website, there are 533 miles of waterfront in the county. I am often asked when showing waterfront homes along the Chesapeake Bay, the Severn River or any one of the other nearby rivers and creeks, if the riparian rights convey with the property.
From the Ninth Edition of Maryland Real Estate: Practice & Law by H. Warren Crawford and Donald A. White, page 59, comes the best description of riparian rights:
Owners of real estate bordering a navigable body of water in Maryland have the common-law right to make a landing, wharf or pier for their own use or for the use of the public, subject to state and federal rules and regulations. However, regardless of whether the owners’ title extends beyond the dry land, the title to land below the mean (average) high-water mark of navigable waters, as well as the waters themselves, belongs to the public. Thus, an owner may legally own only the property up to the mean high-water mark. High-water mark is defined as the high elevation of water in the course of the usual, regular, periodic ebb and flow of the tide, excluding the advance of waters above that line by winds, storms or floods.
There are many homes with true riparian rights while there are others where the community has retained buffer strips between the homes and the water but have granted rights to the homeowners to cross the community buffer and build piers and docks for water access.
In the photograph above, this owner purchased the land between the home and the water (about 2,000 sq. ft. of hillside that the community developer had retained), consolidated the lots into one parcel, in order to control the hillside location that ultimately allowed him to build the staircase and the pier, giving him 8-plus feet of water depth at the end and enough room to berth several boats, water toys, picknick table and more!
Cape St. Claire in Annapolis Maryland is an example of a community that’s ringed by a community accessible buffer between the waterfront homes and the Magothy River. Other communities, where developers held back ownership of buffer strips, have long since abandoned them and ownership may or may not have been deeded to the waterfront property owners. Palisades On Severn in Crownsville Maryland is an example where some owners have consolidated ownership of the buffer land to secure water access rights, with a few owners going to far as to obtain lot consolidation letters from the county whereby they have aggregated two or more lots into one parcel of land.
A survey, not a location drawning (which is simply an illustration of the house and the property boundaries, any encroachments, but not much more), should clearly show whether or not the land is riparian. Buyers considering purchasing homes along the water would be best advised not to assume anything about the parcel without seeing the community plat and/or having the land fully surveyed. A survey can run a $1,000 or more dollars (were as a location drawing is only about $200) and will precisely locate the house, property boundaries, rights-of-ways, encroachments, and – of course – show the shoreline or any plot between the property and the water as well as clearly illustrate if the property has riparian rights.
Ultimately, should you have questions about riparian rights, you should consult with an attorney or the appropriate county, state or federal authority.
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