I Sued My Neighbor and Lost My Dock re: Riparian Rights
Occasionally I get a call from someone that begins with "I need to sue my neighbor." What the caller really needs is advice to understand the options available, the risks, and how best to solve the problem which prompted the call. If you start with the idea that a fight is your best alternative, you may needlessly make matters worse.
Scollard v Lake Columbia Property Owners Association involved the Riveria Shores Plat No. 2 (the "Plat") on Columbia Lake in Jackson County. The plaintiffs and defendants were neighbors who owned lots adjacent to the lake. The fight began in 2000, when plaintiffs installed a light post near the shore of the lake. Defendants complained to the Lake Columbia Property Owners Association (the "Association"), which attempted to fashion a resolution. At that time the primary issue was whether the light post was on plaintiffs' or defendants' side of the shared lot line. Fourteen years after the dispute began plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against defendants and the homeowner's association.
Like many waterfront plats, each of the "lakeside" lots in the Plat consisted of a metes and bounds description, which resulted in an irregular strip of land between the lakeside line and the water's edge. The trial court held that, notwithstanding that strip of land, the lakeside lots extended to the water's edge. The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the Association held title to the strip of land that separated the lakeside lots from the water's edge. The Court of Appeals held that the Plat was unambiguous, and neither plaintiffs' nor defendants' lots extended to the water's edge, because:
The Plat includes metes and bounds descriptions for the lakeside lot lines;
The metes and bounds descriptions are depicted on the survey map that was recorded with the Plat;
The survey map shows a strip of land between the lakeside lot lines and the water's edge; and
The Plat includes an ingress and egress easement to Lake Columbia which would be meaningless if the plattors intended to convey the land to the lot owners.
Though the case is silent on this point, I suspect that both plaintiffs and defendants had installed docks and otherwise exercised riparian rights, as though their respective lots extended to the water's edge. Their ability to do so is now undermined by the result of their lawsuit. The fee title interest in the strip held by the Association cuts off riparian rights. Further, the easement to plaintiffs and defendants for ingress and egress does not include riparian rights, such as erecting a dock or mooring boats overnight. Ironically, the plaintiffs' decision to involve the Association in the dispute in 2000 may have undermined their ability to claim title to the strip of land by virtue of adverse possession or acquiescence. The light post, which stirred the pot 15 years ago, is a virtual footnote.
The Scollard decision also creates some uncertainty in this area. In my opinion, factors 1–3 above do little to show the plattors' intent. The water's edge moves seasonally and even throughout the course of a single day. It is not uncommon for surveyor's to keep their feet dry, not try to measure that moving target, and close a waterfront lot short of the water's edge. Unless there is a very clear intent by the plattor to retain title to the resulting strip of land, it is presumed to pass with title to the waterfront lot. Future reliance upon factors 1–3 above may therefore needlessly complicate and obscure the analysis of subsequent cases.
Regarding factor 4, the easement granted to lakeside property owners, that grant should have been a red flag to the anxious litigants, who may now have fewer property rights than when the lawsuit began.