Maryland deeds are available on line at http://www.mdlandrec.net/msa/stagser/s1700/s1741/cfm/index.cfm simply by signing up for a user name and password. A deed that transfers property bounded by water (a navigable stream, river, bay or ocean) conveys riparian rights, unless there is an express reservation of those rights in a the deed. Often a deed will convey land "running along the banks of the river" -- this is a very strong indication that riparian rights are included. Even if there is a boundary such as "between two iron pipes" that doesn't expressly say "the water" if the boundary is along the water, then riparian rights should convey. If you obtain riparian rights to a lot, no one can build between you and the water, no one else can put a pier in front of your lot, and you have the right to protect your land from erosion or to take ownership of any new land that arises.
Review Plats, Declarations and Covenants
If the property is part of a subdivision, it is always important to review the plat -- the map of the lots that were created when the subdivision was formed. In many cases, the plat will show a lot that is next to the water, but will indicate that the developer or community association retains a strip of land between the lot and the water, or retains the riparian rights to the land. The plat should not override a deed, but if there is an indication of community land next to the water, this should serve as a warning to investigate further, and to obtain an attorneys' title search as soon as possible which addresses the ownership of riparian rights.
If there is a Homeowners Association, ask about riparian rights, piers and the covenants.
Many waterfront communities have provisions in the deeds, plats or covenants that address aspects of riparian rights such as the construction of piers or bulkheads. It is very important to know what the community believes are the restrictions -- if those restrictions are different than what appears in the deeds, the deeds may control, but you might have to file a lawsuit to get such a determination. If that is going to be the case, you want to know it long before you purchase the house.
If a lot has a view, but does not own the riparian rights, what does that mean?
First, if you have a waterview but no riparian rights, then it is possible that the owner of the riparian rights has the right to build a structure (such as a pier, fence or bulkhead) between your lot and the water. If your view is across another buildable lot, then the owner of that lot may construct a house there. Depending on the situation, if there are not riparian rights, then there may not be a right to access the water or launch a boat, even if the beach is right next to the waterview lot. Generally with community associations there is a right for all lot owners (including the waterview lot) to use the waterfront. This will mean that the waterview lot can launch a boat, and sometimes build a pier, but will not be able to restrict other members of the community from accessing the waterfront. This can create a good deal of tension between neighbors.
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