1. Community Waterfront versus Private Waterfront.
Many waterfront, waterview and water access properties are located in developments where the original developer subdivided a large tract and reserved
the waterfront for the use of all of the houses in the neighborhood. Interior houses may be listed as “water access” properties and have affirmative rights to community beaches, boat ramps and other facilities. In many of these developments, there is also a strip of land that lies along the water and
surrounds the entire community and was intended to allow for members of the
community to walk and have access to the entire waterfront. The ownership
structure of these walks can vary widely, but if they are present, there are
special concerns for the homes nearest the water. Those homes may have the
right to build and maintain a pier — but the pier may actually be owned by the
community and be available for all of the members to use. Or there may be no
right to a pier at all. The possible variations are too numerous to list, but
an owner purchasing “waterfront” in such a community should be sure to
understand exactly what the obligations and benefits are in the particular
2. Waterfront versus Waterview.
A true “waterfront” property is one that has riparian rights associated with
it. In Minnesota and most of the states in North Central United States,
the owner of a property that has riparian rights has the right to apply to
construct a dock or other waterfront improvements, has the first right to apply
for permits for waterfowl hunting, and has the right to prevent others from
impeding access to the water or the view of the water. In contrast, a
“waterview” property is generally one that is close to the water, but has land
owned by someone else between the land and the shoreline. A waterview may have
a limited (or no) right to build a pier and may not have any guarantee that
another owner will not build a fence, structure or put in plantings that
obstruct the waterview. Careful consideration should be paid to what might be
placed between the waterview property and the water — if it is community land on
which nothing can be built that is very different than private land on which
someone in the future may build a multi-story home.
3. Dock Locations, Boundary Lines and Permits.
Having (or keeping) a dock is a first priority consideration for many
waterfront lots. It is not relaxing and fun to have a dispute with a neighbor
about whether a dock is on his property, your property, on the line, should be
shared, or whether a pier that you were counting on using is even legal in the
first place. If you are considering a home where there is currently a dock or
dwhere you would like to put in a dock, its continued viability should be
examined. First, consult with planning and zoning — was the existing dock built
with a permit (or grandfathered?), or if you would like to put in a new dock,
can an adequate pier be placed on the site given environmental limitations and
the location of neighboring dock? Second, is there any dispute with a neighbor
about the location of any of the dock (does a dock encroach the property line
extended into the water?) or is there an expectation that a dock will be shared?
If you are purchasing a property that is one of several that were previously
owned by a single family, it is very common that multiple homes shared a single dock. This sort of agreement should be spelled out — or it can quickly lead to
4. The Obligation and Ability to Maintain the Waterfront.
For any property that faces significant wave action or is on a bluff, there
will be erosion concerns. For all waterfront properties, there are significant
legal restrictions on the owners’ ability to clear growth and trees, to fill
eroded areas, and to construct shoreline protection. The cost and ability to
obtain permits for waterfront repairs and maintenance should be considered. For
example, in many waterfront communities, there are existing bulkheads or
revetments. Depending on the particular community, the cost to maintain these
structures may lie with the nearest individual landowner or with the community.
In Rice, Minnesota, there have been news reports of criminal charges being filed because a waterfront property owner hired a landscaper to clear trees and bushes along the waterfront. Just like piers, it is wise to consult with knowledgeable professionals and zoning departments before becoming set on plans for improvements.
5. Choose the right professionals.
Purchasing and owning waterfront is meant to improve ones quality of life,
and usually it does. There will always be an unfortunate few that end up
purchasing a large, unexpected and expensive dispute, and their quality of life
is most often not improved. Without question, the best means of avoiding
unexpected difficulties is to associate with professionals with experience and
interest in waterfront and riparian properties. A good realtor will know the
particular area where a property is located, or will know the questions (like
the ones above) that must be analyzed in order to know if a property is right
for you. A good lawyer will know whether a deed is to transfer all of the
rights you expect, (or maybe just some), will be able to spot misunderstandings
in dock sharing agreements, and will know how to resolve a dispute that does
arise. I hope these pointers help to make your next waterfront property
purchase or sale, an enjoyable one!
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