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Disputed Cape St. Claire pier must go, lawsuit over erosion and property rights settled

A lawsuit between property owners and the Cape St. Claire Improvement Association was settled this month with the agreement that a pier built this spring would come down, but no easements would be granted for public access on the private land.

Alan Hyatt, an attorney representing three property owners, said he doesn’t think developers anticipated some homes becoming waterfront through erosion when the covenants were written more than 70 years ago. At one point the community-owned a strip of land separating the lots from the water, a beach for community residents to walk along.

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“What happens when a community-owned property washes away and then you end up with waterfront lots that weren’t anticipated when covenants were adopted in 1940s?” he said. “It’s a pretty interesting academic question that may have to wait for another set of circumstances.”

Cape St. Claire’s attorney Tim Larsen said they don’t dispute that some land has washed away and that the mean water level sits up against some of the homeowners’ lots now.

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But he said the association’s riparian rights are specified in covenant agreements created when the development was first built in 1949, and regardless of who owns the lot the developer has reserved riparian rights.

“You can reserve the riparian rights to the property when you sell it,” he said. “Whoever then holds the property expressly gives it to them by the deed.”

The covenant states that the River Bay Co., the predecessor to the homeowner’s association, reserved riparian rights to the land it owned in 1949 and would come to develop as Cape St. Claire.

Larsen said they had no choice but to sue the property owners to protect their rights. The settlement specifies the community association owns the riparian rights to 1224 and 1222 River Bay Road. Complaints related to a third property were dismissed without prejudice.

Hyatt said he thinks an appellate court would find that 1224 and 1222 River Bay Road have riparian rights, but to get there would have taken time and money. The settlement doesn’t include an easement, so the public doesn’t have the right to walk over the property, Hyatt said.

River Bay Properties LLC needs to remove the pier at 1224 River Bay Road within 90 days and cannot build another pier without the association’s permission.

Larsen said he is frustrated the county didn’t investigate further before approving permits to build the piers at 1222 and 1224 River Bay Road.

Environmental Policy Director Matt Johnston said the system worked as it should have, with the parties coming to an agreement through the court. The county approved the permits based on the information it had about land ownership, notwithstanding the covenant agreement between developer and homeowner.

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