After Cape St. Claire fight, lawmakers seek greater protection for shoreline rights

After a pier was built, debated and torn down in Cape St. Claire last year, legislators are taking steps to prevent disputes over shoreline rights in the future between landowners and private community associations.

Sen. Ed Reilly and Del. Mike Malone have sponsored a bill that says the Department of the Environment or the Board of Public Works cannot terminate or impair the riparian rights of an individual or community association because of an application to install a pier.


Del. Heather Bagnall has sponsored a similar bill that also states that riparian rights ― control of the waterfront — can’t be lost because of erosion or sea-level rise.

State law says only people whose property borders tidal wetlands or waters can apply to build piers and other structures.


However, the right to build on the waterfront can be negotiated and altered through private agreements, as is the case in Cape St. Claire. The homeowners association’s waterfront rights are specified in covenant agreements created when the development was first built in 1949. Regardless of who owns the lot, the developer has reserved riparian rights.

Last year, the county and the state approved permits for a property owner to build a pier at Cape St. Claire, which was then constructed.

The association said it was forced to sue to protect its rights, the case was settled and the pier was torn down.

Reilly said his bill would ensure that the state and county are aware of that kind of contractual relationship, so permission isn’t given for a legally objectionable structure.

“That’s not fair to the property owner and it’s also not fair to the community association,” he said.

The bill would require two new hires at the Department of Environment to update regulations and check for contracts that affect waterfront permits, which is estimated to cost a little more than $120,00 annually.

Reilly said because of the financial crunch the state is facing, the bill may be amended to instead require that the property owner notify adjacent landowners and the community association when it applies to build a pier. That would both alleviate the cost for the state and make it so the department is not making decisions having to do with private contracts. The community association could take immediate action to appeal the permit when notified, Reilly said.

The property owners were able to apply to build piers at Cape St. Claire because their parcels extended to the waterline, but it wasn’t always that way, according to county land records. There had been a thin strip of beach owned by the association that separated those lots from the water, where the community was planning a shoreline restoration project to protect against erosion.


But the county has said that land is all eroded away now, and is underwater. Cape St. Claire maintained its rights through the contract. Without it, the new waterfront property owners would have been clear to build.

Bagnall’s bill states that riparian rights can’t be lost through the permitting process or because of erosion and sea-level rise. She said the Cape St. Claire dispute illuminated a loophole in which a property owner could assert rights on the waterfront through an application to build.

“Now that sort of this loophole in the permitting process has been highlighted, I kind of feel like the clock is ticking,” she said.

Her bill would create a repository of the kinds of private agreements like the one at Cape St. Claire, allowing private agreements to be spotted during the application process, triggering the need to notify the owner of riparian rights. She said she doesn’t want other community associations to need to spend tens of thousands in legal fees, as Cape St. Claire did.

Implementing the bill would cost $465,000 in fiscal 2022, which includes hiring two planners, an administrative assistant and an assistant attorney general.

Jeffrey Roche, Cape St. Claire Improvement Association president, said his organization has testified in support of Bagnall’s bill, with amendments.


“The association is happy to work with any of its representatives to prevent communities from having to incur substantial costs to defend their interests,” he said in an email.