Oceanfront Property - Who Owns the Beach?
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Oceanfront Property - Who Owns the Beach?

Riparian rights in each state dictates who owns the beach on coastal property. The mean high water mark is often used to mark the boundary of oceanfront property.

The rights, obligations and restrictions of property owners on oceanfront land is referred to as littoral rights (not to be confused with literal). More often, you will likely hear the term ‘riparian rights‘, however, riparian rights technically refer to property that borders a stream or river. Littoral and riparian rights address issues of water law and real estate law. Even though “littoral” is the proper term for oceanfront property, riparian is used to broadly describe property that borders any and all water and is generally accepted.

Not all oceanfront properties have riparian rights. In order for the property to have riparian rights, the border must extend to the mean high water mark. Riparian rights do not necessarily include the right to restrict access to the beach. Riparian ownership only provides the right of direct access to the ocean and these private rights must be balanced with public use and are subordinate to local, state and federal laws. Land that is seaward of the mean high water mark is held in trust by the state.

Since the shoreline moves, and sometimes land is added through accretion and sometimes eroded because of storms or other conditions, the property lines may take on a different status. What then? Can property be upgraded to riparian land or can riparian rights be removed?

Each coastal state has extensive legal doctrines and case law that dictates riparian and littoral rights. It is not uncommon for the boundary of riparian property to actually move with the accretion or erosion of the shore and not remain static. However, if the shoreline changes radically (avulsion) as a result of a hurricane or other violent storm, the remedy or result may be different. The property may in fact be downgraded and lose riparian rights or perhaps be upgraded to include riparian rights. Additionally, whether or not the state is responsible to build seawalls or control erosion will differ from state to state. A landowner may or may not have any right to alter the shore or build fences or seawalls or barriers of any sort.

Canals and inlets from the ocean are included in riparian rights and present additional complication in managing and litigating riparian rights. The state may decide to drain or divert water from inlets and canals depriving landowners of their use of the water or means of navigation to the ocean. A premium is usually paid for property on navigable waters and when that benefit is removed the landowner is sometimes left powerless or may engage in litigation with the state.

Know your rights and restrictions when purchasing property on oceanfront or navigable coastal water. Consult with a reputable real estate law firm that specializes in riparian and littoral rights of coastal land owners. Check the insurance laws and practices concerning coastal property in your state.

Resources and further reading:

Legal Tides: The Rights of Oceanfront Property Owners in the 21st Century: Joseph Kalo and WalterClark

Erosion of Riparian Rights Along Florida's Coast: Theresa Bixler Proctor

Living on Lakefront Property: Legal Rights and Obligations

Additional resources:

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Comments (9)

Excellent discuussion and presentation

I own a farm including a seafront, great to know this valuable information, thanks.

Great discussion on this subject matter.

Very interesting share and nicely executed, too. Learned something new today about oceanfront ownership. Thanks Voted up

You have done extra ordinary work . . . really deserve for vote.

You have done extra ordinary work . . . really deserve for vote.

I hadn't even thought of this until I saw your article but its a really interesting topic! A great explanation and a great article :D

I've never lived near the ocean but it was interesting learning something new. Thanks.

Very interesting and good to know.