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MARITIME LAW

Riparian and Littoral Property Rights in the States of Alabama and Florida Or the right to use the water in front of my property. By Capt. J. Michael Shea, JD

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ith all the marinas becoming condos and more and more restrictions being placed on waterfront property, I thought it might be interesting to look at an old waterfront property owner’s right to use the abutting water: riparian rights. Time and space does not permit me to cover the subject for all the Southern states, so I have chosen two to write about in a somewhat general way. Most of our Southern states have similar laws, as we all get our law in this area from the British common law. The definition of riparian property rights (or owner) is best described as one whose land is bounded by a river, and “riparian rights” are special rights to make use of water in a waterway adjoining the owner’s property. The words “riparian owner” have been frequently applied also to ownership on the shores of the sea or of a lake, a condition more accurately expressed by the phrase “littoral owner.” Accordingly, the term “riparian rights” refers to the rights of owners of land abutting a stream, while the term “littoral rights” refers to the rights of owners of land abutting surface waters of a lake or sea. However, the term “riparian” is now used generally to describe a landowner who owns land bordering upon, bounded by, fronting upon, abutting or adjacent and contiguous to and in contact with a body of water. Thus, the terms, “riparian rights” and “littoral rights,” are often used interchangeably today. The more common of the two is “riparian rights,” which has come to mean both “riparian and littoral rights.” One of the latest and most interesting cases in Alabama is the case handed down by its Supreme Court, Cove Properties, Inc. v. Walter Trent Marina, Inc. (2000). In this case, the riparian landowner filed case asking the court to define his rights (to determine each party’s respective rights). The case was an action against a neighboring marina, alleging the adjacent pier encroached in front of the landowner’s property. The Supreme Court of Alabama held that the marina had no right to erect a pier in front of the riparian lands of another. The court was looking at Alabama Code 1975, § 33-7-50, which gives an owner of riparian lands the right to install a pier in navigable waters in front of its riparian lands, but has no right to erect a pier in front of the riparian lands of another. Of interest in this case is the fact that the state of Alabama had given the marina owner a lease for the bottomland (the small piece in question) which was in front of the adjacent landowner. The court held that the state’s lease of submerged property 44

November 2005

SOUTHWINDS

to the marina did not give the marina the right to erect a pier encroaching in front of the neighbor’s riparian lands, even beyond the point of navigability. Code 1975, § 33-7-50. This statute controls and gives riparian rights in Alabama to install wharves, docks, and the like in front of your waterfront land. The owner may also receive, discharge, store, protect, transfer, load and unload freight and commodities of commerce to and from vessels. The case law in Alabama gives riparian rights to owners: the right to construct waterfront improvements abutting the water. Of interest to the issue of riparian rights in Alabama is

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