Do I Have the Right to An Unobstructed Waterway View On My Florida Property?
These rights are typically granted to the upland property owner for current or future enjoyment
Ownership of waterfront property is highly coveted in Florida. Property owners who manage to procure a home with an unobstructed view of the water understandably expect it to remain that way. However, there are limits to Florida real estate law concerning what’s known as “riparian rights.” If you’re considering entering into a real estate contract for an “upland property,” it’s critical to understand what your ultimate rights are concerning the view.
What Are Riparian Rights in Real Estate Law?
When it comes to private waterfront property ownership in Florida, it’s often difficult to distinguish where private land rights end and sovereign land ownership begins. As a result, the state introduced a subset of real estate law to address what are called riparian rights, which include:
- Ingress and egress
- Bathing or swimming
- Unobstructed view of the water
Scenarios where riparian rights might apply include:
- The general use of water adjacent to the property.
- Wharfing out to navigability in the channel.
- Actual access to navigable or passable waters.
- The right to accretions or additions.
These rights are typically granted to the upland property owner for current or future enjoyment, though the actual land covered by water is not. Instead, the land the owner holds title to extends to the “ordinary high watermark of the navigable water.”
Many disputes in Florida over riparian rights deal with an adjoining property owner’s right to construct a wharf or dock out to a navigable channel or the off-shore location where the water’s depth is sufficient for navigation. If homeowners who bought their property with the view in mind are prevented from enjoying it, they are entitled to relief under Florida law.
A side note: The term “littoral rights” refers to pieces of land that border pooled or standing bodies of water, such as a lake. Riparian land borders a flowing water source, such as a stream or river.
Your Riparian Rights Under Florida Real Estate Law
Riparian rights in Florida are those rights enjoyed by real property owners whose upland property extends to the normal high-water line on navigable waters. In other words, a property owner’s land must immediately border a body of water.
Sec. 253.141 of the 201 Florida Statutes recognizes the right of an upland property owner to an unobstructed view of adjoining waters. It’s essential to understand that for a property to convey water rights, it must extend all the way to the high tide watermark. This might seem obvious when viewing a property, but buyers must be cautious. There are times when what you assume to be a waterfront property turns out to just the opposite. How? If the lot’s boundary ends at all short of the high tide watermark, ownership of the property will not grant riparian rights.
As the buyer, it’s your responsibility to perform due diligence when purchasing a waterfront property. An attorney specializing in Florida real estate law can help determine if riparian rights are granted by reviewing the property description in the deed. And unless the body of water is expressly mentioned when defining the lot’s boundaries, it’s highly recommended you have a survey performed.
There’s Value in Protecting Your Waterfront View
Imagine buying a waterfront home with a fantastic outlook of the channel only to find out a bridge was being constructed that would block your view. Not only would you lose the enjoyment of looking out over the vista, but your property’s value could decrease by tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This actually happened to one upland property owner. A Florida case entitled Lee County v. Kiesel arose from a situation where the local government built a bridge that significantly blocked the Kiesel property’s view of the water. The court found that the right to an unobstructed view is unique to Florida, and the bridge’s construction deprived the property owner of that right. It subsequently ruled in the Kiesels’ favor for damages to their property value.
The takeaway is that views can be obstructed by many things, not just docks, and wharves. Trees, fences, boathouses, and other structures can all negatively affect an upland property’s views. When considering the purchase of a waterfront property, it’s important to research any construction planned by local governments or neighboring property owners. And if you or a neighbor want to build a dock, it’s advisable to build it perpendicular to the shoreline so to avoid any potential legal conflict.
Do the courts ever find in favor of a property owner with a dock or other structure that obstructs a neighboring waterfront property owner’s view? One case in Florida was settled in the dock owner’s favor because the structure was there when the waterfront property was viewed prior to purchase. In other words, if you’re aware of an obstruction before you buy the property, it’s unlikely, if not impossible, that you’ll get the courts to agree you’re entitled to an unobstructed view after the fact.
Know Your Riparian Rights
Fortunately, Florida law recognizes that disputes and litigation sometimes arise between neighboring landowners about the use of waterways and shorelines. If you own a waterfront property, the state’s riparian rights ensure your property rights are weighed fairly and equitably.
When a disagreement over riparian rights winds up in the court, it can lead to a lot of stress, as cases can drag out over months or years. And such conflicts often cause tension and division in the neighborhoods where they occur. It’s always advisable to try and resolve riparian rights conflicts out of court if at all possible.
As mentioned above, investigating potential sources of conflict should always be a part of your due diligence strategy when deciding to purchase a waterfront property. This can include talking with neighboring property owners, contacting local municipalities, and reviewing subdivision plans. A real estate attorney who specializes in waterfront properties can also offer insights and legal advice that will save you time and money.
Contact Munizzi Law Firm today to learn more about how a lawyer can be one of your most valuable allies in a real estate transaction with potential riparian rights issues.