The County’s Code Enforcement Special Magistrate finds the innocent purchasers to be guilty of violating the County’s “FEMA” Code even though it is undisputed that the new owners had nothing to do with creating the violations.
The County argues, and the Special Magistrate agrees, the County’s “FEMA” Code is a “strict liability” ordinance, making an innocent purchaser, who purchased the property without any notice of the violations, responsible for demolishing the ground floor improvements. Even though the information contained on the Sarasota County Property Appraiser’s webpage played an important role in inducing your buyers to purchase the property, the Special Magistrate, relying upon a Monroe County case, Monroe County v. Carter, the Special Magistrate finds that the information in the records of the County Property Appraiser should not be imputed to the County Code Enforcement office.
In other words, even though the County Building Department can use the Property Appraiser’s records as evidence of a violation, an innocent purchaser may not use the Property Appraiser’s information in their defense.
The Special Magistrate orders your buyers to demolish the ground level improvements and return the ground floor area to storage space. In so doing, your buyers will have spent approximately one-third of the purchase price on space they cannot use for living purposes.
How do you protect your future buyers from the same fate as those described herein? It is not enough to have the title work and closing performed by a lawyer who is not an expert in waterfront property law. A lawyer with expertise in this field would have known that something was wrong with the ground level improvements. In the absence of any permits of record with respect to the ground level improvements, the only way to protect purchasers from buying a potentially illegally non-conforming residence is to insist that the Sellers produce building permits for the ground level improvements.
If the Seller balks, then seek a written determination from the local government Building Official that the ground level improvements are legal. If that cannot be obtained, then either the purchase price must be adjusted to take into consideration the illegal living space and compensate the buyer for assuming the risk, or the buyer should be encouraged to terminate the contract.
It should also be noted that according to most Contracts, violation of government regulations constitutes a title defect that must be cured by the Seller upon written notice by the Buyer. If the Seller is allowed to choose the lawyer who will serve as the Title Agent, what is the practical likelihood that the Seller’s lawyer will find the illegal nature of the property and counsel the Buyer to notify the Seller of the title defect?
Buyers of waterfront property need knowledgeable lawyers whose primary objective is to protect the interests of the Buyers. And that includes title and closing services.
I love saltwater. I grew up on the New Jersey shore, just a block from the Atlantic. With the windows open and the wind blowing from the east, you could hear the ocean waves and smell the briny air. It has always been my objective to live where others go for vacation.
After law school and graduating from the University of Miami with a special law degree in Ocean and Coastal Law, the foundation was laid for my career as an attorney concentrating on Florida water law. My goal of living where others vacation was realized.
My early career, representing State and local governments, focused on environmental permitting and enforcement. When I went into private practice, joining Icard/Merrill in 1987, I specialized in marina and dock permitting, coastal construction, environmental enforcement defense, submerged lands ownership, riparian rights, and consultation with buyers of waterfront and near waterfront properties.
Since graduation from law school, there has been an explosion in federal, State, and local regulations affecting properties near the water. These regulations govern the location, size, height, design, materials, landscaping, cost, and remodeling potential of all new and existing waterfront and near waterfront properties. These regulations became so onerous, it was commonplace (and remains so) for owners to ignore them when making improvements to their properties.
To make matters worse, until relatively recent times, there was lax enforcement of the new regulations. The result is an abundance of properties with existing violations which today, when discovered, are aggressively enforced.
More and more of my time was spent representing innocent purchasers of waterfront properties who were forced to remedy violations created by prior owners, or those who purchased property only to find that due to legal matters they were unaware of, the property was unsuited to their needs. It became apparent that there was an increasing gap in the nature of legal services that buyers of waterfront property required and the scope of such services provided.
An increasing number of non-lawyers are representing buyers in the purchase of waterfront property, and those lawyers who are representing buyers are typically not performing the legal due diligence that buyers need.
The main reason this condition exists is that buyers of waterfront and near waterfront properties do not know any better, and because those that should know better are not doing a good job of educating buyers as to how to protect themselves in a transaction involving waterfront property.
As a result, it has become my “mission in life” to let buyers know “what they don’t tell them”. I will let it remain unsaid as to who “they” are, but through my website, Facebook & Twitter pages, blog, emails and other means, it will be my objective to inform buyers of waterfront and near waterfront properties of all of the questions they should be asking. They need to get these answers before committing to the purchase so that if and when they close, buyers will be satisfied that the property will be suitable for their intended purposes.
Sellers of such properties can use this information to make sure that they are able to investigate the status of their property and can be prepared to answer the questions that an informed buyer will be asking.
The lure of the sea shall continue to attract more and more paradise seekers to our shores. Assisted by the information provided by my materials, and through consultation with appropriate professionals, one’s paradise found will remain just that. Welcome to my paradise!
In a decision rendered by the Florida Second District Court of Appeal on October 31, 2003, the Court in Syvrud v. Today Real Estate, Inc., 28 Fla.L.Weekly D2505, reiterated the respective duties of sellers and their representatives in regard to the sale of residential property. In particular, the Court held that an “as is” clause in a contract for the sale of residential real property does not waive the duty imposed by Johnson v. Davis to disclose hidden defects which materially affect the value of the property.
In Johnson v. Davis, 480 So.2d 625 (Fla. 1985) the Florida Supreme Court denounced the ancient concept of “Let the Buyer Beware” as related to residential real estate, and declared the law in Florida to be:
“Where the seller of a home knows of facts materially affecting the value of property which are not readily observable and are not known to the buyer, the seller is under a duty to disclose them to the buyer. This duty is equally applicable to all forms of real property, new and used.”
Following the Florida Supreme Court’s decision in Johnson v. Davis, the Florida Third District Court of Appeal in Revitz v. Terrell, 572 So.2d 996 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1990) held that a real estate broker could be held liable for the failure to disclose to the Buyer that the subject structure was in a FEMA Flood Zone and that the ground floor living area was built in violation of local building codes. The Court suggested that a real estate agent may be held liable for nondisclosure or misrepresentation even if the agent did not have actual knowledge of the legal status of the structure, but based upon the circumstances, should have known that the structure was non-conforming.
The Court in the recent decision in Syvrud v. Today Real Estate, Inc. emphasized that the duty of disclosure announced by the Florida Supreme Court in Johnson v. Davis extends to a seller’s real estate broker, and that a seller’s broker may also be liable to a buyer on the theories of negligence and fraudulent misrepresentation.
Under Florida law, a real estate broker or agent may be held liable for damages under a theory of fraudulent misrepresentation when the broker or agent makes a material false representation without knowledge of its truth or falsity. Young v. Johnson, 538 So.2d 1387 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1989).
With respect to waterfront property, there are way too many issues that may materially affect the value of property to enable a Broker or Agent to correctly inform Buyers about the status of the property. Frequently there are FEMA concerns, questions regarding the legality of existing structures such as docks or seawalls, the suitability of the property for development or redevelopment under coastal construction regulations or the extent to which mangroves or other wetland plants may be altered.
Thus, to avoid potential liability, Brokers and Agents should resist the temptation of offering answers regarding the legal status of waterfront properties. Buyers and Sellers must assume the burden of establishing the factual and legal status of waterfront property.
To accomplish this important task, Sarasota environmental and waterfront closing attorney David M. Levin has prepared a very valuable tool; a two part Checklist entitled, “What Every Waterfront Property Owner Should Know”. Part 1 contains a comprehensive list of questions which should be answered to ascertain the condition of property in relation to applicable FEMA regulations. The questions are to be answered by the Seller and/or appropriate public and private professionals to ascertain the legal status of existing structures.
Part 2 contains a comprehensive list of questions concerning a variety of environmental considerations. These too are to be answered by the Seller and/or appropriate public and private professionals.
The Checklists should be used by Sellers to assist them in the preparation of their disclosure statements and by Buyers to evaluate the completeness of the Seller’s disclosures.
A fully informed Buyer and Seller reduces the incidence of misrepresentation and nondisclosure. Informed Buyers and Sellers reduce the potential for conflict, and hence, reduce the potential for real estate broker and agent liability.
These Checklists were prepared as part of Mr. Levin’s continuing efforts to be of service to Buyers and Sellers of waterfront properties. They are available free of charge and can be obtained by contacting Mr. Levin at (941) 629-6319 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It is recommended that the Checklists be used in conjunction with this website.
In the furtherance of his efforts to serve the community, you may be interested to know that Mr. Levin has recently expanded his practice to include waterfront property closings.
I am often asked, “Why should a Buyer of waterfront property hire an attorney to do the closing, and what are the benefits of hiring an attorney who limits his practice to waterfront property law?”
First and foremost, only an attorney is qualified to provide legal advice!!!
If an attorney is hired to issue the title insurance and perform the closing, this legal advice is included in the service.
An attorney can answer questions of utmost importance to all Buyers, such as,
Is the recorded legal description accurate?
What is the nature of any deed restrictions upon the use
of the property?
Will the title to the property be marketable for future sales or refinancing?
What is the zoning of the subject property and how will local zoning laws affect the use of the property?
The purchase of waterfront property requires a higher level of due diligence than other properties. An attorney experienced in waterfront property law can assist the Buyer in answering important questions such as,
What federal, state and local governmental restrictions will affect the development or redevelopment of the property?
Does the existing structure comply with applicable Flood Zone requirements?
Is the property suitable for the Buyer’s intended purposes?
Who owns the submerged lands adjacent to the uplands?
Can I build a new dock or modify an existing dock?
Do riparian rights come with the property?
Unlike a Title Company, having an attorney on the Buyer’s side can help make sure the Buyer’s interests are faithfully upheld. One of the greatest benefits of using an attorney is that the attorney has an ethical obligation to work on behalf of the Buyer’s interest.
Buyers should understand that there is a difference in the level of service between closings performed by an attorney and those performed by a Title Company. They should also be advised that with respect to waterfront property, not all real estate attorneys have the same level of experience.
To gain a better appreciation for the issues to be resolved prior to the purchase of waterfront property, Buyers are encouraged to review the two-part brochure entitled, “What Every Waterfront Property Owner Should Know”. These brochures, containing comprehensive checklists, can be obtained by contacting, David M. Levin, Esq.
Beginning July 1, 2006 all Buyers of properties either partially or totally seaward of the State Coastal Construction Control Line MUST be provided a Coastal Properties Disclosure Statement upon execution of the contract. This new statement is required to indicate that the coastal property may be: a) subject to coastal erosion; b) subject to federal, state and local regulations concerning coastal construction; c) affected by beach renourishment activities; and/or d) restricted by marine turtle regulations.
Along all of Florida ’s sandy beaches, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection has an established a jurisdictional line called the Coastal Construction Control Line (“CCCL”). The CCCL is intended to define the areas of Florida shoreline which are subject to severe fluctuations due to: storm surge, storm waves, flooding or other predictable weather conditions. Once the CCCL has been established within a coastal county, almost all construction seaward of the CCCL is regulated by the state and requires special permitting from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
Prior to this new law becoming effective, a Seller of coastal property was merely required to inform a Buyer whether the property being purchased was located partially or totally seaward of the CCCL. This information was allowed to be disclosed as late as the time of closing. Typically, by the time the existence of the CCCL was disclosed, it was too late to halt a transaction or seek additional information regarding the suitability of the property for development.
Under the old law a Buyer was permitted to waive their right to be informed of the location of the CCCL. This waiver was typically agreed to by unwitting Buyers who did not understand the significance of the restrictions imposed upon properties located seaward of the CCCL.
Under the new law, an amendment to Section 161.57, Florida Statutes, (which is reprinted in its entirety below), the following disclosure statement must be included, either in the contract, or as a separate document, prior to the execution of the contract by both parties (the Effective Date) for any property located totally or partially seaward of the State Coastal Construction Control Line:
“THE PROPERTY BEING PURCHASED MAY BE SUBJECT TO COASTAL EROSION AND TO FEDERAL, STATE, OR LOCAL REGULATIONS THAT GOVERN COASTAL PROPERTY, INCLUDING THE DELINEATION OF THE COASTAL CONSTRUCTION CONTROL LINE, RIGID COASTAL PROTECTION STRUCTURES, BEACH RENOURISHMENT, AND THE PROTECTION OF MARINE TURTLES. ADDITIONAL INFORMATION CAN BE OBTAINED FROM THE FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION, INCLUDING WHETHER THERE ARE SIGNIFICANT EROSION CONDITIONS ASSOCIATED WITH THE SHORELINE OF THE PROPERTY BEING PURCHASED.”
While the new law makes it clear that the failure to provide the required disclosure statement will not impair the enforceability of a contract or create a right of rescission, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation has advised that a broker or real estate agent who had actual knowledge that the property was located in an area requiring the disclosure, and who failed to make such a disclosure, may be found guilty of violating Section 475.25(1)(b), Florida Statutes for committing misrepresentation or concealment, and may be punished under the provisions of Section 475.42, Florida Statutes.
This new disclosure law reinforces the need to have due diligence inspections and the property closing performed by an attorney with specialized expertise in waterfront property and coastal construction law. Providing a prospective Buyer of coastal property with a clear understanding of how to comply with federal, state, and local regulations will ensure that the sale or purchase of property located in the Coastal Zone takes place both quickly and seamlessly.
As always, any real property closing performed by David M. Levin, Esq. includes the due diligence inspection, involving an evaluation of federal, state, and local coastal construction regulations, AT NO EXTRA CHARGE.
Full Text of New Law
Florida Senate – 2006 SB 1948
CODING: Words stricken are deletions; words underlined are additions.
16 161.57 Coastal properties disclosure statement.–
17 (1) The Legislature finds that it is necessary to
18 ensure that the purchasers of interests in real property
19 located in coastal areas partially or totally seaward of the
20 coastal construction control line as defined in s. 161.053 are
21 fully apprised of the character of the regulation of the real
22 property in such coastal areas and, in particular, that such
23 lands are subject to frequent and severe fluctuations.
24 (2) At or prior to the time a seller and a purchaser
25 both execute a contract for sale and purchase of any interest
26 in real property located partially or totally seaward of the
27 coastal construction control line as defined in s. 161.053,
28 the seller must give a written disclosure statement in the
29 following form to the prospective purchaser which may be set
30 forth in the contract or in a separate writing:
1 The property being purchased may be subject to
2 coastal erosion and to federal, state, or local
3 regulations that govern coastal property,
4 including the delineation of the coastal
5 construction control line, rigid coastal
6 protection structures, beach nourishment, and
7 the protection of marine turtles. Additional
8 information can be obtained from the Florida
9 Department of Environmental Protection,
10 including whether there are significant erosion
11 conditions associated with the shoreline of the
12 property being purchased.
14 (3)(2) Unless otherwise waived in writing by the
15 purchaser, at or prior to the closing of any transaction where
16 an interest in real property located either partially or
17 totally seaward of the coastal construction control line as
18 defined in s. 161.053 is being transferred, the seller shall
19 provide to the purchaser an affidavit, or a survey meeting the
20 requirements of chapter 472, delineating the location of the
21 coastal construction control line on the property being
23 (4) A seller’s failure to deliver the disclosure,
24 affidavit, or survey required by this section does not impair
25 the enforceability of the sale and purchase contract by either
26 party, create any right of rescission by the purchaser, or
27 impair the title to any such real property conveyed by the
28 seller to the purchaser.
While there are many obstacles facing local beach nourishment projects, i.e., funding, source of sand, potential impacts to birds and turtles, and public opposition, the question of the constitutionality of the State statute which authorizes such public beach projects will no longer be an impediment to moving forward to restore area beaches.
Since 2006 when a decision of the Florida First District Court of Appeal finding the Florida Beach and Shore Preservation Act to be unconstitutional was appealed to the Florida Supreme Court, local governments have been uncertain regarding the legal status of their proposed beach nourishment projects. When on December 18, 2008 the Florida Supreme Court refused to reconsider its decision rendered on September 29, 2008, the Court’s determination in Walton County v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. upholding the constitutionality of the Act may now be considered final.
In substance, the Florida Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Florida Law which authorizes the government’s unilateral placement of sand between an upland beachfront property owner’s property boundary and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, cutting off the property owner’s contact with the water. The Beach and Shore Preservation Act mandates that the upland beachfront property owner’s legal rights of ownership terminate at the pre-fill shoreline, recorded as the Erosion Control Line, and that the nourished beach between the Erosion Control Line and the new water line shall henceforth be public lands.
The Florida Supreme Court held that under the Act, while the upland beachfront property owner would retain traditional riparian/littoral rights of ingress, egress, view, boating, bathing, and fishing, local governments may cut off a property owner’s direct contact with the water without any recourse to the upland property owner. The Court held that provided the upland beachfront owner still has access to the water, the owner does not lose any protected legal interest when contact with the water is eliminated by a beach nourishment project.
In addition to resolving a hotly contested dispute of significant interest to local governments and beachfront property owners, the Florida Supreme Court’s decision is extremely helpful as a comprehensive summary of Florida Law regarding riparian/littoral rights. It is for that reason that I highly recommend all real estate professionals take a few minutes to read the decision.
The U.S. Supreme Court has just released its long-awaited decision in a landmark Florida case concerning ownership rights along Florida’s beaches. The decision styled Stop The Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection upholds a determination by the Florida Supreme Court that when a state authorized beach renourishment project adds sand waterward of privately owned uplands, the newly created beach is publicly owned, and the upland property owner is not entitled to damages as a consequence of its loss of some common law riparian rights due to the separation of the upland property from the waters’ edge.
While under the challenged State Statute (Section 161.191, Florida Statutes) regarding beach renourishment, beach front owners would retain common law riparian rights such as the right of access and unobstructed view to the Gulf or ocean waters, the upland owners would no longer have the riparian right to expand their property ownership due to the slow and imperceptible addition of sand, known as accretion.
Beachfront property owners in the City of Destin and Walton County, in Florida’s panhandle, had challenged a proposed beach renourishment project on the grounds that the resultant improvement, under the provisions of relevant State Statutes, would deprive the owners of the valuable riparian right of accretion, without just compensation.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the determination of the Florida Supreme Court that beach front property owners do not have a protected property right to be able to maintain contact with the water. Thus, when the State authorizes the placement of fill between the beach front property owner’s property and the water’s edge to create a new beach, while the upland owner no longer has exclusive rights between the waters edge and his upland property, and no longer is entitled to natural accretions to his land, as long as the beach owner retains the legal right to access the waters, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, the property owner has lost no property right for which compensation must be paid by the State.
This case could have devastating consequences for private property owners who own property along renourished beaches which are impacted by the Deep Water Horizon oil spill. The damages to beaches that are likely to occur from the spill may not be considered as damages to the upland owner if such damage takes place waterward of the recorded Erosion Control Line. It may be difficult for a private upland property owner to prove a loss of property value due to damages to beach area which the owner no longer owns due to the beach renourishment project.
I will continue to analyze the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision and will revise this report as necessary.
An amendment to Florida’s Administrative Procedure Act, HB 993 (“the Bill”) passed last week by the Florida Legislature significantly changes the ability of affected property owners, and especially waterfront property owners, to challenge the correctness of government agency decisions which substantially affect their property. Hailed as a boon to big business, the Bill has major adverse consequences for individual home owners seeking to protect their investment. The Bill severely restricts the ability of private third parties to contest the issuance of, among other things, State environmental permits for projects that may impact the quality and use of waterfront properties.
By way of background, it should be understood that most activities that have the potential of adversely affecting water quality, navigation, wildlife, beaches, and wetlands, require one or more permits or approvals from State agencies. The decision to issue or deny such permits or approvals is required to be based upon criteria established by State statute and administrative regulations.
For example, before the State may issue a permit for the construction of a boat dock, the applicant must provide through the application process “reasonable assurances” that the proposed project will not adversely affect seagrass, manatees, water quality, or navigation.
Typically, for example, permit applicants for boat docks provide very little information regarding potential impacts to navigation, particularly from a neighbor’s perspective. Furthermore, State agencies typically accept the information provided by the applicant at “face value”, and do not conduct their own investigation of a project’s potential navigational impacts.
Therefore, for example, if an applicant fails to present information regarding the existence of a navigation channel in close proximity to the proposed dock, and such proximity would adversely affect a neighbor’s ability to get his/her boat in and out of their existing or future dock, it is likely that the State would issue the requested dock permit.
Since 1975, the Florida Administrative Procedure Act has allowed “substantially affected parties” to request a formal administrative hearing to contest permitting decisions made by State agencies. At least since 1981, following the landmark decision in Florida Department of Transportation v. J.W.C., 396 So.2d 778 (Fla. 1 st DCA 1981), the Florida Administrative Procedure Act established a “level playing field” between the permit applicant, the State agency, and the affected third-party.
Upon the filing of a challenge requesting a formal administrative hearing, typically an independent administrative law judge would be assigned to conduct a trial-like proceeding wherein evidence and testimony is presented by all parties to determine whether or not the permit met the requirements of State laws and regulations. Additionally, the filing of a challenge converted the permit issuance from “final agency action” to “preliminary agency action”.
It has long been the understanding following the FDOT v. J.W.C that the administrative hearing to contest the issuance of a State permit was a “de novo” proceeding. In other words, “no presumption of correctness attaches to the Department’s preliminary approval”. The administrative hearing was viewed as a step in the “formulation”, not “appeal” of agency action.
At the hearing, the applicant was required to present witnesses and evidence to demonstrate that the proposed project met the applicable standards. The challenging third-party had the opportunity to cross-examine both the applicant’s and State’s witnesses to challenge the sufficiency and accuracy of the information presented in support of the application.
This right of third-parties to directly question the applicant’s expert witnesses is crucial to the administrative hearing process. I have won a number of major environmental permitting challenges on behalf of affected third-parties just on the strength of my cross-examination of the applicant’s witnesses.
Since most permit applicants do not think that their application will be challenged, applications frequently are not submitted with the level of detail that would be sufficient to withstand close scrutiny. The reason for this is that many State permit reviewers do not hold the applicant’s to the level of detail that is required by the statutes and regulations. Thus, shortcuts are taken by both the applicant’s consultants and State employees. I have also found that there are a number of environmental consultants who will falsify or report half-truths in the data presented in support of an application.
When, during the course of an administrative hearing, the work effort of applicant’s consultants and State employees is placed under the “spotlight”, frequently it will be found that the applicant did not provide the requisite “reasonable assurances” that the proposed project complies with the applicable requirements of law.
In the boat dock example given above, if the third-party challenger showed under cross-examination of the applicant’s witnesses that no investigation of the potential impact of the proposed dock upon navigation was conducted, the third-party challenger would be entitled to a Final Order denying the requested dock permit.
The Bill passed last week has clearly “tilted the playing field” in favor of permit applicants. Under the terms of the Bill, the proceeding before the administrative law judge is no longer a true “de novo” hearing. The agency’s action comes to the hearing with a presumption of correctness.
The applicant is no longer required to produce expert witnesses to support the correctness or accuracy of their work product contained in the application. The Bill states that the applicant may merely submit the application and supporting documents to show “prima facie” entitlement to the requested permit. Accordingly, the third-party objector is denied the opportunity for cross-examination of the authors of the information submitted to the State.
Under the Bill, the responsibility falls squarely upon the shoulders of the affected third-party to hire experts to conduct the studies either not performed by the applicant, or performed in an incomplete or inaccurate manner. This is a very costly and unfair burden.
The State’s environmental agencies were created by statute to protect the environment and private property. These agencies are funded by taxes paid by private property owners. Private property owners should not be required to pay even more as a consequence of the failure of State agencies to do the work they have been tasked to do.
If State agencies do not have the resources to thoroughly review the information provided in support of an application, or to conduct independent studies to verify the completeness or accuracy of applications, reason dictates that it should be the responsibility of the applicant to justify the facts or conclusions specified in its application.
The Bill, however, expressly benefits the applicant to the clear detriment of third-party property owners, by allowing the applicant to demonstrate prima facie entitlement to the requested permit or authorization simply by submitting into evidence the application, materials submitted in support of the application, the State agency’s report, and the agency’s written intent to issue the requested authorization.
To make matters worse, this major change in long-standing protections for private property owners afforded by the Administrative Procedure Act was made as an eleventh-hour “tack on” amendment to another bill regarding administrative agency “Rulemaking”. HB 993 has nothing to do with agency rulemaking. Additionally, the Title to HB 993 which is required to identify the scope of the proposed legislation, refers to the change as “providing that a non-applicant who petitions to challenge an agency’s issuance of a license, permit, or conceptual approval in certain circumstances has the burden of ultimate persuasion and the burden of going forward with evidence”.
There was nothing in the Title to HB 993 to suggest that the proposed legislation was going to change the protection of a “level playing field” that private property owners had enjoyed for at least 30 years. In fact, the language cited in the Title to HB 993 merely recited the standard that has been continuously applied since the FDOT v. J.W.C. case. One reading the Title to HB 993 could reasonably assume that the purpose of the Bill was simply to codify a policy that has been in place for a very long time, not to radically change the policy.
The Florida Legislature’s enactment of HB 993 presents further evidence of the State’s lack of concern for private property rights and the dire need for waterfront property owners to organize a state-wide association to have an effective voice in Tallahassee.
The question regarding whether an owner of property bordering on a navigable water body has a right to construct a dock upon adjacent privately owned submerged lands without the consent of the owner of such submerged lands will soon be answered by the District Court of Appeal for the Second District of Florida. In the case before the Court, 5F,LLC was the owner of the submerged lands adjacent to the uplands owned by Robert and Sarah Dresing and the Michael W. O’Shaughnessy Trust in Lee County, Florida. My client, 5F, LLC objected to the upland owners’ construction of a joint “fishing pier/observation deck” upon 5F’s privately owned submerged lands, lawfully acquired from the State of Florida, without 5F’s consent.
The upland owners argued that they had riparian rights, including the right to construct a dock, and they could exercise such rights even without the consent of the owner of the submerged lands. The following is an excerpt of my Appellate Brief showing that in the absence of any right granted by the Florida Legislature, riparian rights do not include the right to construct a dock upon adjacent submerged lands:
The analysis of a “riparian right” to “wharf out” requires an understanding of these terms of art and how they developed over time. Currently the term “riparian rights” is defined by Florida Statute Section 253.141(1) which, in pertinent part provides, “Riparian rights are those incident to land bordering upon navigable waters. They are rights of ingress, egress, boating, bathing, and fishing and such others as may be or have been defined by law.” The analysis of a “riparian right” to “wharf out” requires an understanding of these terms of art and how they developed over time. Currently the term “riparian rights” is defined by Florida Statute Section 253.141(1) which, in pertinent part provides, “Riparian rights are those incident to land bordering upon navigable waters. They are rights of ingress, egress, boating, bathing, and fishing and such others as may be or have been defined by law.” (Emphasis Added).
The phrase “wharf out” is an anachronism, particularly when used to describe a so-called right to construct a recreational dock. Historically, a wharf referred to a structure necessary for commerce. See, e.g., Geiger v. Filor, 8 Fla. 325, 1859 WL 2324 (Fla. 1859). Nevertheless, today the phrase “wharf out” appears to be treated as synonymous with constructing a dock. [The phrase “wharf out” as currently interpreted, does not include a “right” to construct a dock to reach navigable water depths. All applicable local, state, and federal regulations impose limitations upon the length of docks where necessary to protect environmental or navigational interests. For example, Chapter 26, Division 2, Section 26-71(b), Lee County Land Development Regulations provides that the maximum permissible length of a single-family residential dock is 300 feet.]
“Riparian rights” can only exist under Florida’s Constitution, Florida Statutes, or the common law. Article X, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution provides:
The title to lands under navigable waters, within the boundaries of the state, which have not been alienated, including beaches below mean high water lines, is held by the state, by virtue of its sovereignty, in trust for all the people. Sale of such lands may be authorized by law, but only when in the public interest. Private use of portions of such lands may be authorized by law, but only when not contrary to the public interest. (Emphasis Added).
The Florida Constitution does not expressly provide for any rights of riparian owners over the submerged lands adjacent to their property. The phrase may be authorized by law” indicates the private use of State-owned submerged lands is within the Florida Legislature’s discretion. It is not a “right.” Certain riparian rights are provided by statute in Florida, but Section 253.141(1) does not expressly include any right to construct a dock or to “wharf out.” Since neither the Florida Constitution nor Florida Statutes expressly provide for a right to wharf out, the only possible source would be the common law. Florida Statute Section 20.1 declares England’s common law as the law of this State provided it is consistent with state and federal law. Accordingly, Florida riparian rights are originally based on England’s common law. Under English common law, all lands below the high water mark of tidal waters were owned by the King of England. All construction on the King’s lands without the King’s consent was prohibited. Boston Waterfront Development Corporation v. Commonwealth, 393 N.E.2d 356 (Mass. 1979). See also, Shively v. Bowlby, 14 S.Ct. 548 (1894) (noting that every building or wharf constructed below the high water mark without the King’s consent could “either be demolished, or be seized and rented for his benefit”).
Our English ancestors who immigrated to America made their settlements on harbors or arms of the sea. For the purpose of commerce, the construction of wharves erected below the high water mark, i.e., upon the King’s land, was a necessity. See, Woodbury Storer v. Nathaniel Freeman, 6 Mass. 435 (Mass. 1810); and Dutton v. Strong, 66 U.S. 23 (1861). Therefore, to facilitate the construction of such wharves below the high water mark, early colonial governments enacted ordinances modifying the common law of England. One such ordinance was the “Colonial Ordinance of 1641″ adopted by the Massachusetts Bay Colony. See Commonwealth v. Cyrus Alger, 61 Mass. 53 (Mass. 1851). The Colonial Ordinance of 1641 modified the common law of England by extending the private upland ownership of lands adjoining a tidal water body from the high water mark to the low water mark, and extending seaward a maximum of one hundred rods (1,650 feet), thus facilitating the erection of wharves. Id; Woodbury, supra.
Property rights granted by the Colonial Ordinance of 1641 were considered “qualified” rights since those who acquired such property were restricted from any use impairing the public’s right of passage over the water. Commonwealth v. Charlestown, 1 Pick. 180 (Mass. 1822). The Charlestown Court further noted that while the colonial government could transfer title to submerged lands to upland owners to build wharves up to a certain maximum size, such conveyance was conditioned to the extent that such construction could not interfere with the free passage of boats over the public’s navigable waters.
These early decisions demonstrate that even England’s common law did not recognize any right of a riparian owner to wharf out. Had such right existed under England’s common law, the adoption of ordinances such as the Colonial Ordinance of 1641 would have been unnecessary.
Shortly after Florida became a State, the Florida Legislature enacted “The Riparian Act of 1856”, Chapter 791, Laws of Florida (1856). The Act defined “riparian owner” as one whose lots extended to the low water mark, and granted to such owners the right to build wharves to facilitate the landing of goods, and to fill in land to build warehouses and other buildings, as long as such activities did not obstruct the channel. Thiesen v. Gulf, F.& A. Ry. Co., 78 So. 491, 501 (Fla. 1917). The Riparian Act of 1856 was replaced by “The Butler Act”, Chapter 8537, Laws of Florida (1921), which provided for similar rights. The rights granted to riparian owners by these acts were repealed in 1951 by the adoption of Chapter 26776, Laws of Florida (1951), which required upland riparian owners to purchase from the Trustees any lands sought to be filled prior to the erection of permanent improvements upon State-owned submerged lands, including private docks. The Florida Legislature’s enactment of these acts demonstrates that no common law right to wharf out existed under Florida law, for if it did, the Riparian Act and Butler Act would have been meaningless. Florida’s appellate opinions confirm this conclusion. In State v. Black River Phosphate Co., 13 So. 640 (Fla. 1893), the Florida Supreme Court discussed the purpose of The Riparian Act of 1856, recognizing that the State’s ownership of submerged lands was “a bar to the riparian owner building such wharves.” See also, State ex rel. Ellis v. Gerbing, 47 So. 353 (Fla. 1908) (confirming the State’s power to grant limited privileges to individuals to erect wharves to reach navigable waters but not unreasonably impair the public’s rights in the use of the waters or lands thereunder).
Ferry Pass Inspectors’ & Shipping Ass’n. v. White’s River Inspectors’ & Shipping Ass’n., 48 So. 643 (Fla. 1909), identified Florida’s common law riparian rights. Ferry Pass involved a dispute between two logging companies over the use of a navigable river, one of whom owned the uplands along the river. The shipping company that did not own the uplands nonetheless tied logs along the shore of the other shipping company’s uplands over their objection. The upland owner filed suit seeking a declaration that the other shipping company’s use deprived the upland owner of access to the water. The Florida Supreme Court found that neither shipping company had exclusive rights to use the navigable waters, as the upland owner’s rights of use were shared with both the other shipping company, and the public. The Ferry Pass Court did, however, engage in a discussion of what an upland owner’s riparian rights included. An examination of that language demonstrates constructing wharves was a “privilege,” as distinguished from a right. When this language is analyzed in comparison to the other cases addressing the issue, it becomes abundantly clear that any such “privilege” was always subject to the consent of the submerged land owner. The Court stated,
Among the common-law rights of those who own land bordering on navigable waters apart from rights of alluvion and dereliction, are the right of access to the water from the land for navigation and other purposes expressed or implied by law, the right to a reasonable use of the water for domestic purposes, the right to the flow of the water without serious interruption by upper or lower riparian owners or others, the right to have the water kept free from pollution, the right to protect the abutting property from trespass and from injury by the improper use of the water for navigation or other purposes, the right to prevent obstruction to navigation or an unlawful use of the water or of the shore or bed that specially injures the riparian owner in the use of his property, the right to use the water in common with the public for navigation, fishing, and other purposes in which the public has an interest.
With respect to a riparian owner’s ability to construct wharves, in contrast to the litany of specifically listed riparian rights, the Court noted:
Subject to the superior rights of the public as to navigation and commerce, and to the concurrent rights of the public as to fishing and bathing and the like, a riparian owner may erect upon the bed and shores adjacent to his riparian holdings bath houses, wharves, or other structures to facilitate his business or pleasure; but these privileges are subject to the rights of the public to be enforced by proper public authority or by individuals who are specially and unlawfully injured.
Accordingly, a riparian owner only had a “privilege” to construct a wharf upon the submerged lands adjacent to its property which could be granted or denied by the State, and was also subject to the State’s regulation. It was not a common law “right.”
The first Florida decision to squarely address whether common law riparian rights included a right to construct docks upon adjacent submerged lands was Thiesen v. Gulf, F.& A. Ry. Co., 78 So. 491 (Fla. 1917). In that case, Thiesen, a landowner claiming to be a riparian owner, brought suit against a railroad company for damages to his “rights” as a result of the construction of railroad tracks, including fill upon submerged lands opposite the shoreline of Thiesen’s property. Thiesen claimed the construction directly interfered with his rights of access, ingress and egress, and his right to construct wharves from his upland property to the channel of Pensacola Bay.
Initially, Thiesen claimed his right to construct wharves to the channel of the bay was based upon The Riparian Act of 1856. The Florida Supreme Court, however, determined the Act did not apply because Thiesen only owned the land to the high water mark, and did not own the land to the low water mark, a precondition to being a “riparian owner” under the Act. Thiesen then petitioned the Court for a rehearing claiming that even if he did not have any rights under the Act, he had common law rights, including the common law “right” to wharf out from his property.
The Court granted Thiesen a rehearing to consider his claim of a common law right to wharf out. Thus, the Florida Supreme Court on rehearing faced the precise question as to whether there was a common law riparian right to wharf out. Thiesen v. Gulf, F.& A. Ry. Co., 78 So. 491, 500 (Fla. 1917), rehearing 1918. The Court noted that a riparian landowner only has the common law “right of ingress and egress to and from the lot over the waters of the bay”, and the right “of an unobstructed view over the waters, and in common with the public the right of navigating, bathing, and fishing.”
Thiesen claimed an absolute right to wharf out and that the law was “full of cases showing the common-law rights and how they have been exercised both in England and this country.” The Court pointed out, however, “that counsel deemed it unnecessary to cite a single case or text-book supporting the plaintiff’s declaration….We have made a diligent search of the books for such a doctrine, but have been unable to find a single authority in support of it.” Thiesen claimed an absolute right to wharf out and that the law was “full of cases showing the common-law rights and how they have been exercised both in England and this country.” The Court pointed out, however, “that counsel deemed it unnecessary to cite a single case or text-book supporting the plaintiff’s declaration….We have made a diligent search of the books for such a doctrine, but have been unable to find a single authority in support of it.” Thiesen claimed an absolute right to wharf out and that the law was “full of cases showing the common-law rights and how they have been exercised both in England and this country.” The Court pointed out, however, “that counsel deemed it unnecessary to cite a single case or text-book supporting the plaintiff’s declaration….We have made a diligent search of the books for such a doctrine, but have been unable to find a single authority in support of it.” (Emphasis Added).
The Court expressly noted:
It is perfectly clear that the Legislature of 1856 did not consider the doctrine as announced by plaintiff’s counsel to be so well settled….If the owners of lots which extended only to the high-water mark had the right at common law to construct wharves, docks, and piers out into the bay to the channel, to ‘wharf out’, as the saying is, the act of 1856 was superfluous.
With respect to a “right to wharf out”, the Florida Supreme Court in Thiesen unequivocally announced, “The right did not exist at common law”. The Court did, however, quote the language from its earlier opinion in Ferry Pass Inspectors’ & Shipping Ass’n. v. White’s River Inspectors’ & Shipping Ass’n., 48 So. 643 (Fla. 1909), reflected above, and also confirmed that riparian owners did not have exclusive rights in land below the high water mark other than access. Thiesen at 503 (quoting Merrill- Stevens Co. v. Durkee, 57 So. 428 (Fla. 1911)). Accordingly, the Thiesen Court addressed the exact question presented as to whether an upland owner had a common law right to wharf out, and confirmed such a right did not exist. See also, Brickell v. Trammell, 82 So. 221 (Fla. 1919) (confirming the State’s right to grant easements in submerged lands to wharf out to navigable waters, thereby reiterating its determination that there was no common law right to wharf out).
The Thiesen Court noted the distinction between a riparian “right” and a “privilege” to construct docks on submerged lands beyond the upland boundary of privately owned lands. The Court noted that “the privilege of constructing wharves or piers to navigable waters…cannot be considered as a right appurtentant to the upland. The right to build wharves into the streams or waters of the bay or harbor…was granted by the act of 1856.” (Emphasis Added). Thiesen, at 503. In Krieter v. Chiles, 595 So.2d 111 (Fla. 3rd DCA 1992), the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the right of the State to preclude the construction of private docks on State-owned submerged lands. The Court found a riparian owner did not have a common law right to wharf out. The Florida Supreme Court in Walton County v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc., 998 So.2d 1102, 1111 (Fla. 2008), identified riparian rights as including only access, use, view and the right to accretion and reliction. The Court’s list did not include the right to wharf out. See also, Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc. v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, 130 S.Ct. 2592 (2010)(identifying the same rights as the Florida Supreme Court in Walton).
In light of the overwhelming authority set forth herein, there is no common law right to wharf out; only at best a privilege, always subject to the consent of the submerged land owner. Accordingly, an upland owner does not have a constitutional right, statutory right, or common law right to wharf out, only a privilege subject to consent of the submerged land owner. Thiesen, supra.
This Court, in Barasch v. Odio, 561 So.2d 1256 (Fla. 2nd DCA 1990), found an upland owner’s use of another’s privately held submerged lands was improper. In that case, Odio owned a waterfront lot and adjacent submerged land, which was subject to an easement for a common dock benefitting both Odio and Odio’s neighbor, Barasch. In order to facilitate the use of the dock, Barasch installed davits and motors on the dock, but also sunk a tie pole into Odio’s submerged land, 26 feet away from the dock allowed by the easement. This Court ruled that the placement of the tie pole in the submerged land, away from the easement, was “a substantial encroachment upon the Odios’ rights, for which the Baraschs have offered no legal justification.” Id at 1259. The Court allowed the use of the davits and motors on the dock as incidental to use of the easement, but ordered removal of the tie pole.
If the Baraschs were required to remove a tie pole from Odio’s submerged land when they had an easement over those lands for a dock because it was outside the easement area, certainly Appellees must be required to remove their Pier since they have no right to construct anything on the submerged land, whether by easement or otherwise.
The above authorities demonstrate Appellees have no riparian right to wharf out or build the Pier on 5F’s submerged lands without 5F’s consent. Appellees have only riparian rights of access, reasonable use, view and rights of accretion and reliction. They cannot boot strap their limited riparian rights to include a right to wharf out or construct a Pier over 5F’s submerged lands without 5F’s consent.
The results of this case will establish new precedent in the area of waterfront property law. I will keep you posted of further developments.
On Thursday, July 10, 2014 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service adopted new regulations designating portions of Florida’s sandy beaches as “Critical Habitat” for the Loggerhead Sea Turtle. Local beaches affected by this designation include Longboat Key, Siesta Key, Casey Key, Venice Beaches, Manasota Key, Knight Island, Don Pedro Island, Little Gasparilla Island, and Gasparilla Island. Beaches of Anna Maria Island and Lido Key were not included.
The direct effect of this designation is that any coastal development requiring federal funding or federal permits, will be reviewed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to determine whether or not the proposed project is likely to jeopardize the continued existence of the Loggerhead Sea Turtle, or destroy or adversely modify the designated critical habitat. The construction and remodeling of existing residential structures does not require federal permits. Therefore, this recent action should not have any direct effect on the local housing market. However, federal permits typically are required for beachfront seawalls and beach renourishment.
As sea levels continue to rise, this is a matter that will need to be readdressed sooner than later.