If you’ve recently purchased property that borders a stream, river, lake, or other body of water in North Carolina, you may be wondering what your rights are to the water behind your house. Do you own it? Can you build structures, such as a dock, on the water? How far do your rights extend?

North Carolina Is A “Riparian State” – You’re Entitled To “Reasonable Use” Of Water

So, do you own the water behind your house in North Carolina? The answer is “sort of.” North Carolina follows what’s known as a “riparian” doctrine. 

Basically, this means that any property owner with property that is next to surface water has the right to “make reasonable use” of the water. In other words, if you own a home that’s built on a lake, you have the right to “make reasonable use” of the water behind your home.

What does this mean? It means that you don’t own the water. Not really. But, you do maintain the rights to use it for access for swimming, boating, and fishing, and you may also have the right to build certain improvements – such as a dock for your boat. You may also have the right to “accretions,” which are increases in the size of your land caused by sediment buildup. 

So while you don’t own the water itself, your access to it is still protected. However, your rights are restricted in some ways. For example, you only have “reasonable use” of the water. You do not have the right to do something that would interfere with other people using the water. For example, you could not build a dock that’s so large that it would block access to the river, stream, or an area of a lake.

As long as you’re making “reasonable” use of the water, you are likely in good shape. However, you should always consult with a Wilmington land use attorney before making major improvements like building a dock to ensure you are within your legal rights.

What About Beachfront Property In North Carolina? 

Nobody can own the ocean. The ocean is public, and you cannot control this water or how it is used. In addition, the state of North Carolina owns all “wet sand” areas of the beach, meaning the area from the low tide line to the high tide line. This is public, and you do not own it. Anyone can use it at any time for any purpose, within the boundaries of local laws and restrictions.

However, private property owners do have ownership over the “dry sand” area of the beach. This means the area between the mean high water mark, and the base of the first line of sand dunes.

Despite this, though, there are sometimes local statutes and laws that prevent property owners from restricting access to “dry sand” beaches, or making certain improvements. If you own beachfront property in New Hanover County, you should discuss your rights with a Wilmington land use attorney. 

Need Help Understanding Your Water Rights?

Property laws can be confusing, particularly when it comes to waterfront property. If you need assistance determining your legal rights to make improvements or restrict access to water at your property, Rountree Losee is here to help. Contact us now to discuss your situation with a Wilmington land use attorney, and get the professional guidance you need.