Real Estate – Rising Seas Affect Coastal Property Rights
If recent trends continue property owners along the coast may suffer significant erosion of their property rights.
Sea levels are rising. The exact cause may be subject to much speculation, debate, and controversy, but what cannot be denied is that the South Carolina coast has seen an average increase in sea level of 1.2 inches per decade. Taking into account the increasing rate, the South Carolina coast is expected to see the sea rise 13 inches by 2050.
This projection currently puts 88,000 people and 62,000 homes at risk, and has the potential to permanently flood more than 384,000 acres in only a few decades. So what exactly happens to land ownership when that land becomes permanently submerged, and what can property owners do to protect their rights?
The special rules attached to ownership of property adjacent to a lake, pond, or ocean are known as littoral rights. Unlike land-locked parcels, where the property line is unchanging and can be definitely ascertained by a survey, littoral properties are subjected to the tides, and generally end at the “mean high-water mark,” which is the average line where the water comes during high tide. Further confusing matters, some littoral owners have been able to successfully argue for ownership between the mean high-water mark and the mean low-water line (the average line where water comes during low tide) if they can show that they or one of the previous owners were granted the rights to these partially submerged lands.
Regardless of where a littoral owner can draw the line, increases in sea levels will push it back. Property that become completely and permanently submerged becomes property of the State, destroying the owner’s right to it. Projected sea level increases predict that some littoral property owners could find their entire parcels becoming property of the State. Although structures can be built to protect littoral property from encroaching sea levels, owners may be required to wade through an administrative process with DHEC or other state and local agencies in order to receive permission to build. Failure to comply with all applicable regulations can result in criminal and civil penalties, so it is highly inadvisable to undertake such preventative measures without consulting legal counsel.
If your property is situated along the coast and you are concerned with how rising sea levels might affect your future rights, please contact the Finkel Law Firm. Our knowledgeable attorneys are ready and willing to discuss strategies to mitigate the risk that your property might disappear beneath the surface of the waves.