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When a river’s path changes, do ownership rights follow suit?

On Behalf of | Nov 26, 2018 | Real Estate Disputes |

Florida is known for its waterfront property. Those who are interested in real estate that includes river front property may notice that, over time, the river’s bed moves. This likely triggers questions about property rights. Namely, when the river’s bed moves, do property rights change? This is one question to discuss with an attorney before purchasing real estate in Florida that contains riverfront property.

A bit of history: When is a riverbed deemed public property?

State law often considers riverbeds as public property. The tradition goes back to English law, when the Crown determined water should be available for public use. After the American Revolution, the ownership of navigable waters was deemed the state’s domain.

But where is the line between navigable waters and private ownership? Generally, the law sets this line at the ordinary high-water mark. This essentially refers to the daily mark of the high tide. The position of the mark is fairly stable for inland lakes, but can cause a problem for those who abut the coast. A future post will discuss this facet of the issue in more detail.

Rivers as property boundaries: What if the riverbed moves?

As for riverbeds, the legal world refers to rights involving river areas as riparian rights. When the river serves as a boundary, does the changing riverbed signal a changed boundary line? Generally, not. Courts grappled with the issue in the seminal case, Nebraska v. Iowa. In that case, the Missouri River shifted its bed to just North of Omaha. Ultimately, the court decided the boundary remained in the spot of the old channel. Of course, the details behind the reason for the changed riverbed are important in a court’s decision.

The questions of property rights are just one area to take into consideration before finalizing a real estate transaction. In some cases, it is wise to include additional provisions to real estate documents that address these issues. As such, it is wise to seek legal counsel experienced in these matters before finalizing the deal.