Thursday, August 11, 2011

Whose Beach Is It Anyway?

Riparian rights is a challenging concept, born in English common law. As such, it generally applies only to the colonial states, but they are the ones that matter to me. The principle is that a waterfront owner has a fundamental right to the use of his property, and that includes water access and placing a dock out to deep water, but only if it is for boating use (some states extend this to include private fishing piers). Marinas are a different and I'll skip that morass. At the same time, the riparian owner does not own the property under the dock or under the water, and not even below the high tide mark:

The states also enjoy minor differences in interpretation. For example, there are 2 slightly different interpretations within the Chesapeake Bay:

Note: military reserves do not follow these rules and it's best to keep your distance and respect all of the charted restrictions. Not one toe anywhere near the beach, and often anchoring is restricted.

What does this mean for the beach comber? Keep you feet wet or nearly so. Skip the blanket and picnic and leave no trace. Pick up some trash. I respect the owner, but he didn't buy the wet beach, no matter what he thinks, any more than I own the curb in front of my house; there is a county easement and so I respect a person's right to park or walk on the sidewalk. 98% of waterfront property owners get this and will greet a quiet walker courteously. The remaining 2%--only one person so far--gave me grief for landing, a condo owner at Chesapeake Beach who didn't know the law and had been the victim of to many spill-over beach parties from the town. A small minded little man, he requested that I remove my stern anchor to deeper water and that we not touch a 3-foot strip of wet beach between my boat and public property next door. An embarrassing episode.... for him.

Recently the City of Annapolis rejected a request by several marina owners to ban anchoring in a creek, because it could make access to some slips more difficult. While such bans do exist in other areas and even within Maryland (Solomons Island), they are rare and Annapolis decided to avoid the precedent. After all, both riparian owners and the public have a right to use the waters. It's a balancing act; we all need a home marina, a place to park while we are at work and home, yet marinas can grow and grow and choke what were once roomy anchorages.

Once I got grief from a landowner who thought I was anchored too close to his dock, with a thunderstorm approaching. I might drag and do damage, and he suggested a better place; it was indeed a better place, but the storm was too close and I had 2 anchors down. Given the extreme violence of the storm, his concern was not unfounded, but I didn't drag. This is certainly a concern for marina owners and I try to give them room. But with the proliferation of docks, sometimes anchoring gets a little cozy. Who has the greater right?

If we can all just be reasonable, the most slippery of legal concepts....


  1. Hi Drew -

    Apparently the situation in Washington State is a little muddier (oops) than the simple "wet & dry beach" classification would seem to indicate...

    s/v Eolian

  2. ... and muddier yet...

    And I should further add that with our 16 foot tides, the "wet beach" section here is considerably bigger than it is on the Chesapeake


  3. Somehow I can't picture myself sitting in the front yard and watching passers by, waiting to scold them when they step off the sidewalk. That's the situation a waterfront landowner has assumed when they buy the property, and the mature ones understand. The immature ones won't.