Riparian Rights: Use and Enjoyment of Water Adjacent to Owned Property

Many religious organizations own land adjacent to bodies of water.  Ownership of the land is established by the title to the land.  But what about the water?  Who has the right to use, and limit access to, the adjacent body of water?

Riparian rights are the rights of a landowner to use and limit access to water bordering the landowner’s land.  Florida statutes provide landowners can boat, fish, bathe and partake in other similar water activities on the bordering water.  However, there are limitations on a landowner’s riparian rights.

First, though the landowner can limit other’s access to the adjacent water, the landowner does not own the riparian rights.  These rights are inseparable from the land, and can only be transferred with a sale of the land itself.

Second, for a landowner to enjoy riparian rights, the land to which the landowner holds title must extend to the ordinary high watermark of the water.

In the recent appellate opinion of Colgan v. Shadow Point, two adjacent property owners fought over ownership of a seawall and the enjoyment of attached riparian rights.  The court found one property owner could construct a fence and deny the other property owner access to the water because, among other things, the high watermark was north of the losing property owner’s land.

The takeaway for religious organizations purchasing land adjacent to bodies of water is close attention  must be made to the land bordering the body of water.  The deed transferring title should be carefully reviewed to ensure the legal description of the property includes the land  adjacent to the body of water.  Additionally, a high watermark survey should be performed to ensure the purchased land extends to the ordinary high watermark.