Riparian water rights are the rights that landowners have to make “exclusive use” or “reasonable use” of the water that abuts, or flows through or over their properties. Examples of riparian rights include the right to build structures like docks or piers, access to the water for the purposes of swimming or fishing, and the right to exclusive use of the water on their property if the water is not navigable.
Exclusive use, in this case, means that the property owner does not have to allow other people to use the water at the point it is on their private property. For instance, other families do not have the right to swim in, or sunbathe on the side of, the river – on someone else’s property. If the water is navigable, the landowner has no right to stop navigation or travel down the river or stream.
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.”
In Maryland, a deed that transfers property bounded by water (a navigable stream, river, bay or ocean) conveys riparian rights, unless there is an express reservation of those rights in the deed. Often a deed will convey land “running along the banks of the river” — this is a very strong indication that riparian rights are included. Even if there is a boundary such as “between two iron pipes” that doesn’t expressly say “the water” if the boundary is along the water, then riparian rights should convey.
If you obtain riparian rights to a lot, no one can build between you and the water, no one else can put a pier in front of your lot, and you have the right to protect your land from erosion or to take ownership of any new land that arises.
The Virginia courts have held that riparian rights are a specific set of five benefits that accrue to the owner of land adjacent to a navigable river, bay, creek or the ocean:
- The right to be and remain a riparian proprietor and to enjoy the natural advantages thereby conferred upon the land by its adjacency to the water.
- The right of access to the water, including a right of way to and from the navigable part.
- The right to build a pier or wharf out to navigable water, subject to any regulations of the State.
- The right to accretions or alluvium.
- [And,] [t]he right to make a reasonable use of the water as it flows past or laves the land.
Taylor v. Commonwealth of Virginia, 102 Va. 759, 773, 47 S.E. 875, 880-81 (1904),cited with approval in, Scott v. Burwell’s Bay Improvement Association, 281 Va. 704, 710, 708 S.E.2d 858, 862 (2011).
A “reasonable use” of riparian rights is translated to mean that the rights exercised by one property owner are fair and equitable when weighed in comparison to the rights of the owners of other properties by or through which the water flows. For instance, one landowner is not permitted to use the entire body of water for his own purposes. He must share that body of water with everyone in the area who also owns a piece of property that is connected to that source of water.
For more information, see: AVVO on waterrfront vs. waterview and www.waterfrontlaw.com. If you are contemplating a purchase of waterfront property in Maryland or Virginia, call me. I’ll be glad to explore this with you.