Living on the Shore
Access to Your Boat: Your Littoral Rights
Although shoreline residents must share the public trust area with their fellow citizens, every coastal property owner enjoys unique legal rights by virtue of owning waterfront land. Just as an upland property owner has the right to access a public road, a coastal property owner has an exclusive right to access navigable water from his or her property. This coastal right of access is known as a "littoral" or "riparian" right. Technically, "riparian" applies to rivers while "littoral" applies to coastal waters, but the terms are often used interchangeably. The littoral right of access provides the property owner reasonable access to the water from his or her property. Reasonable access can be achieved by launching a boat directly from the shore, by use of a mooring, or by constructing a dock suitable for the site conditions and properly permitted by DEEP and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Littoral access does not imply a right to build whatever size dock or wharf a property owner wishes, nor does it mean that a littoral owner may routinely exclude boats or moorings from the waters in front of his or her property.
In terms of access, navigable waters are equivalent to a public road, and a dock serves the same purpose as a private driveway. A littoral landowner may not exclude the public from lawful uses of navigable water, just as an upland owner cannot exclude the public from driving or walking on the street in front of his or her house. However, a duly authorized dock or other littoral structure is private property, and no one can legally interfere with the exercise of this right of access, just as individuals cannot use or block someone’s driveway.
For most waterfront property owners, their littoral right of access boils down to the opportunity to enjoy a private dock. While private docks are quite common and often appropriate for exercising littoral access, encroachment into the public trust area must be minimized and interference with the public's rights avoided. Although specific configurations must depend on site conditions, a reasonable dock in most situations will be a minimal structure consisting of a fixed dock extending from the upland to mean low water with a ramp leading to a small floating dock (e.g.,10 feet by 10 feet).Minimizing the size of the dock is also the best way to avoid potential problems with impacts to tidal wetlands, intertidal flats, and othqer resources, and to avoid interference with navigation and littoral neighbors. For more specific information on dock construction and permitting, please contact the appropriate Land and Water Resources Division Regulatory Staff for your area.
Content Last Updated March 6, 2020