A satellite image showing riparian rights.
Technical Information for Surveyors: Allocation
of Riparian Rights
The Bureau of Survey and Mapping sponsored a study of the effect
of shoreline and channel geometry on the division of riparian
rights. This study was prepared by David Gibson, Associate
Professor, University of Florida.
The research was intended to analyze existing methods for making
allocations of riparian rights together with a study of different
shoreline configurations. The result was a set of recommended
procedures to maintain legal validity.
Following are conclusions from the study and examples of riparian
Conclusions from Literature Study
1. Docking is a near-shore consideration and is limited by the
line of deep water (line of navigability or line of navigation).
The great weight of research indicates that when docking is the
primary issue, courts will usually apportion the space between the
shore and the line of navigability.
2. In considering docking when the shore is relatively straight
on a large body of water (one without a nearby channel or thread),
such as the ocean, a large lake, ocean bay or wide river, the
dominant construction makes division lines perpendicular with the
general direction of the shore extended to the line of navigable
In a wide river, the opposite bank, channel and thread are so far
away from the property in question, that there is little effect of
the shape of those features on a localized problem of docking.
The shore’s general direction requires smoothing of smaller
indentations and projections.
3. Along a straight river without a marked channel and the
opposite bank is in proximity to the area of concern, the dominant
technique is to construct dividing lines perpendicular with the
The stream’s thread should be found as the median line of the
water surface during ordinary stages of water height. Detailed
mathematical techniques exist for finding threads of water bodies
4. Along a river or other water body with a nearby marked
navigation channel and a regular shore, most courts construct
perpendiculars with the nearest limit of the channel as opposed to
It appears that the proximity of any established outer line will
most likely be used by courts for the apportionment using
perpendiculars if the shore is relatively straight.
5. The direction of upland boundaries is largely ignored when
apportioning riparian rights, but if there is a minor deviation in
direction from that recommended for riparian rights division, they
may be extended.
This recognizes that extension of upland boundaries is still the
most natural method for riparian rights allocation and that in some
cases, minor variations from the perfect direction will not cause
6. When the shore is irregular in the form of a cove or
projection into an ocean, ocean bay, lake or river, most courts
apportion the line of deep water to divide docking rights as opposed
to any perpendicular method.
7. Methods of apportionment designed for the whole water body,
such as the center point method in lakes, thread of lakes,
perpendiculars to channels or threads, should be used mainly for
those riparian rights that require appropriation of the entire water
They may also be used to determine direction but not the terminus
of near-shore division lines when they give substantially the same
apportionment as a near-shore method. This would be true in round
lakes with concentric water depth contour lines, along rivers with
parallel banks and parallel channel, and along long lakes with
consistent water depth contours.
8. Riparian rights may conflict with each other, and an order of
priority is implied in court decisions. The right to view has not
been ranked very high in Florida case law and usually resides in the
same area of a more dominant riparian right.
This indicates that techniques should be developed for
apportioning the near-shore right of ingress and egress to navigable
waters as a primary riparian right. The right of view will occupy
the same limits, provided no obvious inequity results.
9. The apportionment of the line of deep water is the most
universal technique for division of docking rights that will give
the same solution as more traditional techniques in many cases and
will follow dominant national case law where the shore is irregular.
This technique is recommended for further development.
Recommended Procedures and Water Body
In explaining allocation procedures, reference will be made to
[PDF - 24 KB], which was constructed rather at random to show
numerous cases of water boundaries. It is presumed that the main
considerations are docking, view and access to navigation channels.
Lots surrounding the water show a typical pattern in which a series
of lots with parallel lines is created along a relatively straight
portion of shore. Another group of lots further along the shore
having parallel lines will meet the first subdivision creating an
odd-sized lot that is a prime candidate for a riparian rights
Along the river from the south upstream from point “a,” the body
would be classified first as being a narrow stream where the
opposite bank is of a consideration and second as having parallel
banks without coves and projections. There are two distinct regions
identified: 1. a broad sweeping curve, and 2. a relatively straight
The main technique to be applied here is the “perpendicular with
the stream’s thread” method. The banks being the limit of water at
its ordinary stage would be determined. A median line would be
constructed exactly midway between the banks. Perpendiculars would
be constructed at the thread and produced back to the shore points.
Private docking rights would stop at the line of deep water.
On the broad curve, the thread would be an arc, and normals with
that thread would essentially be radial lines. On the straight
section, and in the series of small curves approaching point “a,”
the thread would be a series of straight lines. Immediately before
point “a” the shallow cove on the east bank would be a
consideration. Assuming that the deep portion of river is all
suitable for navigation, then the thread would still be determined
and perpendiculars constructed.
Downstream of point “a,” a maintained and marked channel exists
that would take over from the thread for the apportionment base
line. The channel probably has an east and west edge, and
perpendiculars would be constructed at the nearest edge and run back
The deep cove on the east bank could be termed a pocket and would
require special treatment. Inequities are obvious; if lot lines were
extended, person “a” would be entirely cut off from navigable water
and the channel. If the previous technique of perpendiculars from
the channel were applied, then person “b” would receive nothing.
Therefore, the line of navigability should be apportioned.
Finding the cove limits would be the critical decision. The
headlands of the cove would be identified as points “b” and “c” the
places where the east river bank departs its generally parallel
course and enters the cove. Points "b" and "c" would be established
directly opposite shore points using perpendiculars with the line of
navigability. Between "b" and "c", the line of navigability would be
divided in proportion to frontage. Straight lines would run back to
shore points. The deep water portion of the cove would not be
Now, on the east side of the ocean bay, it is recognized that the
shore and channel are diverging from each other. Since docking is a
near-shore consideration, then a near-shore solution is called for.
The choices here would be: (1) project lot lines, (2) dividing lines
perpendicular with the shores, or (3) proportional division of the
line of navigability. The rather drastic dip in the shoreline at lot
line “e” would cause some problems with the perpendicular method
because it is to be used only when the shore is relatively straight.
Once that problem area is identified, go each direction to places
where the basic methods of perpendicular with shore or lot line
projection cause no problems, and between those points proportion
the line of deep water. The deep water area out to the channel would
not be apportioned.
At the inlet the proximity of the channel is an important
consideration, and perpendiculars would be dropped from it such as
at point “d.”
The large cove on the north side of the bay calls for
apportioning the line of navigability. Again, the main question
would be determining the apportionment limits. There is a well
defined headland on the cove’s west end at “h,” but on the east side
the cove’s beginning is not so well defined. As a guideline for
thought, there is no use apportioning lots in which a more basic
method works; therefore, start at the point of greatest inequity,
point “i” in this case, and go in each direction until straight-line
projections will intersect the line of navigability at nearly right
angles well clear of the problem area, such as at “j” in this case.
Apportionment between “h” and “j” will give each owner a portion of
the line of deep water for constructing a dock.
A problem is found for the lot at point “i.” Due to small
frontage, that lot will receive a very small portion of deep water
frontage, perhaps not enough on which to build a dock without
conflict with adjoiners. Research has not found cases that have
spoken to this situation in particular, so future considerations may
be made here.
The west side of the bay duplicates situations already discussed
until the small non-navigable cove is reached at “k.” Apportionment
of the line of navigability would give the lot at “k” practically no
deep water frontage. At this point some severe questions arise.
Perhaps the owners around that marshy cove do not have the right of
ingress and egress to navigable waters. Apportionment of the right
of access to the non-navigable waters would be an easy matter of
using the center-of-a-lake in conjunction with the thread-of-a-lake
as done for long lakes. However, to solve this question, several
legal questions would need addressing outside of the scope of this
At point “l,” the channel becomes proximate, and perpendiculars
with the channel would be used along the west river bank until that
line was replaced with the thread upstreams of “a.”
The fresh water lake has numerous docking problems due to upland
boundary configurations. Two approaches are possible. The more
traditional one would establish center points in the semi-circular
lake ends together with a thread midway between the banks. Around
the lake ends, lines would radiate from center points to shore
points, and along the thread perpendiculars would be constructed and
run back to shore points.
However, such a division will produce an inequity at the cove on
the west side for the lot at “s.” Joining the lot corners with the
center point will yield a slim region of access to deep water.
Therefore, on irregular lakes such as this one, apportioning the
line of navigability would solve the cove problems. Places are
identified where mere extension of lot lines intersecting the deep
water line at right angles, such as at “m,” “n,” “o,” “p,” “q,” and
“r.” Between those limits the line of navigability would be
proportioned to shore frontage. Such a technique localizes a
solution to the precise area of inequity.
It must be mentioned that the size of the lake determines whether
a “whole lake apportionment” is used or a near-shore method applies.
In this case the lake would be termed a smaller style lake in which
the threads and center points are not completely remote to the
near-shore situation. On larger lakes apportioning the line of
navigability should become dominant to solve the near-shore problems
of docking. On the other hand, if the lake is small with regular
shoreline, the two techniques give the same result.
Riparian rights allocation requires a multitude of considerations,
but for docking courts have usually turned to apportionment of a
line of navigability except where a nearby river thread or
navigation channel will call for a perpendicular construction. Even
for the more regular water bodies, such as rivers, round lakes, and
long lakes without shore indentations, apportioning the line of
navigability will give substantially the same results as other
methods that apportion the entire water surface. It is believed that
this technique could be applied with geometric certainty to the wide
majority of situations, and due to the near-shore characteristics of
the docking process, a near-shore solution such as this is most
suitable. A significant amount of national case law backs up the
Care should be taken when apportioning riparian rights from a
safe upland line because parallel shift to the riparian rights lines
Allocation of Riparian Rights