By Reid Buckley

For a homeowner in the Annapolis area, Googling “riparian” most likely means one thing: You want to build a private pier from your land into a creek, river, or the Bay.

But riparian rights — that’s a homeowner’s right to build a structure from their property into the water — are confusing. Exercising your riparian rights always involves proper permitting and compliance with local and state laws.

Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s what you need to know as a Maryland homeowner about Riparian rights.

What are riparian rights?

The roots of Maryland’s common law riparian rights are old — dating all the way back to the grant of the Magna Carta by King John of England. Today, they’re codified in the Wetlands Act of 1970 in the Maryland Annotated Code.

Riparian rights are the legal ownership rights of the land beneath the water, its use, or even access, including the use of the water itself. Virtually all navigable waters and the lands submerged beneath them are owned by the state — and free access must be allowed to the public on any navigable body of water. But modern-day law gives riparian rights in some conditions to property owners with land abutting a body of water. Those rights include access to the water, building a wharf or pier into it, and using the water (without transforming it).

Riparian rights can also allow landowners “exclusive use” to water on their property (no one else can use it, where it’s on their private property). “Reasonable use” also often applies — meaning that one landowner could not use an entire body of water for his or her own purposes and must share the body of water with every other landowner whose property connects to the water.

If you want to build along the waterfront on your property, riparian rights and their enforcement are everything. In some communities, the last five feet of land next to the water is sometimes plotted specifically for community (rather than private) use. That’s why you should have a boundary survey done on any property you intend to purchase. Understanding your property lines — and using a real estate agent that understands the nuances of Riparian Rights and private dock permitting — is the place to start.

It’s also important to know that having riparian rights doesn’t mean you can build whatever you want. Riparian rights give you the ability to apply for a private pier, but do not guarantee you’ll be successful.

What permits are required to build a dock on my property?

In the Annapolis area, homeowners must complete a “tri-part permit” to apply for the right to build a dock that extends from their property into a waterway. This requires separate applications submitted to three agencies: the federal Army Corps of Engineers; Maryland State Department of the Environment or Board of Public Works (depending on activity and location); and Anne Arundel County. A homeowner cannot start construction on a pier until all three applications have been approved.

What other considerations apply when building a pier on my waterfront property?

The length of any pier is limited by its setting. Maryland law allows for a pier into the Chesapeake of up to 300 feet. Generally, a pier on a creek must extend no more than 200 feet into the water. But both these maximum lengths are subject to additional regulations — for instance, no pier can extend more than a third of the way across a creek, and no pier can impede passageway through a channel.

Building a pier in a cove is also subject to special restrictions. Due to the circular nature of a cove, property lines extending into the water eventually cross — imagine these lines as a “pie chart” where the lines converge in the middle. The “cove approach” to riparian rights means that your pier or dock must not extend into the middle of the cove, impeding your neighbor’s riparian rights.

Can riparian rights be bought, sold, or shared?

No. This means that if you don’t have riparian rights, they’re difficult to get. Some homeowners may find success in a request to a community board or HOA. Look for other homeowners in your community who have a private pier and talk to them about their experience. Hopefully, you can find success — and be pulling your boat up to your own pier this summer!

I’d be happy to put you in touch with people who specialize in pier permitting.

Reid Buckley, MBA, is a third-generation licensed real estate agent and waterfront specialist with The Mr. Waterfront Team of Long & Foster Real Estate. She can be reached at 410-266-6880 or via email at Reid@WaterfrontHomes.org.

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