Mar 4, 2022

Maryland Riparian Rights: Everything You Need to Know

by: Reid Buckley

Want to build a dock on your waterfront property? You’ll need to study up on Maryland’s Riparian Rights.

You’ve heard the word before: Riparian refers to anything related to, living, or located on the bank of a natural watercourse like a river or stream. For a biologist, that might mean studying frogs and sea grasses. For a waterfront homeowner in the Annapolis area, googling “riparian” means just one thing: You want to build a private pier on a creek or river.

But riparian rights – 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. Not all properties with riparian rights will actually be able to get a permit for a dock.

Riparian rights are so incredibly important when you’re buying a waterfront property in the Annapolis area. If you have riparian rights, you have the right to apply for a private pier. Riparian rights do not guarantee you’ll be approved for one. But it’s an important first step.

Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s everything 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 Maryland 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 dock 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. The interplay between private property and public access is where riparian rights get tricky. As always, the devil is in the details.

Riparian rights and their enforcement are EXTREMELY important when it comes to building along the waterfront on your property. That’s why it’s important for you to have a boundary survey done before you go to settlement. In some communities, the last 5 feet of land next to the water is sometimes plotted specifically for community (rather than private) use. Understanding your property lines – and using a real estate agent that understands the nuances of Riparian Rights and private dock permitting, like the Mr. Waterfront Team of Long & Foster Real Estate – is the place to start.

It’s also important to know that just because you have riparian rights, it doesn’t mean you can build whatever you want. Riparian rights give you the ability to APPLY for a private pier, but don’t 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 includes one set of plans, but separate applications submitted to three agencies:

  • The Federal Army Corps of Engineers
  • The Maryland State Department of the Environment or Board of Public Works (depending on activity and location)
  • Anne Arundel County.

The state and federal permit applications take on average about 100 days to be returned. The county usually issues their decision in three weeks. Be aware: A homeowner cannot start construction on a pier or dock until all three applications have been approved.

What Other Considerations Apply When I’m Applying to Build a Dock On My Waterfront Property?

The length of any pier is limited by its setting. Maryland law generally allows for a pier into the Chesapeake of up to 300 feet. Usually, 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 or dock 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 mustn’t extend into the middle of the cove, where it would impede your neighbor’s riparian rights.

I Don’t Have Riparian Rights But I Want to Build a Dock. What Should I Do?

Riparian Rights are considered “part and parcel” of the land and are passed via the title of the property. This means riparian rights cannot be individually bought, sold, or shared. This means that, if you don’t have them, they’re difficult to get.

But if you don’t have riparian rights on your property, all is not lost. Some homeowners may find success in a request to a community board or HOA. Do the eyeball test. Look for other homeowners in your community who have a private pier or dock and talk to them about what their process was. Hopefully you can find success – and be sitting on your very own sunny dock in no time.

Important Takeaways

  1. Riparian rights are important for building anything on water adjacent to your property.
  2. If you’re buying waterfront property, always have a boundary survey done to understand your riparian rights.
  3. A real estate agent that understands the nuances of Riparian Rights and private dock permitting is extremely important when buying a waterfront home.

Littoral vs Riparian Rights

“Littoral rights” also deal with ownership rights located along the bank of a body of water, in this case, an ocean or lake – though in Maryland the prominent term remains “riparian” even when referring to the Chesapeake Bay.

About Reid Buckley

Reid Buckley, MBA, is a licensed real estate agent and waterfront specialist with The Mr. Waterfront Team of Long & Foster Real Estate.

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