What You Really Own When You Buy a Boat Slip

Understanding Your Rights as a Boat Slip Owner

By Jeff Baker

When you purchase a boat slip, it’s important to understand the type of ownership you acquire. To grasp this concept fully, let’s first delve into the basics of water rights in North Carolina.

As an owner of real property next to a body of water, you have certain rights associated with this ownership. These rights include access to the water and a right of way to and from the navigable channel. You also have the ability to “wharf out” by building a pier, as long as you adhere to state regulations. Additionally, you are entitled to make reasonable use of the flowing water near your property.

However, it’s crucial to recognize the presence of the Public Trust Doctrine, which states that the public has the right to unobstructed navigation of navigable waterways. In other words, all watercourses deemed navigable are considered public highways for both pleasure and profit. In North Carolina, this definition even extends to waters navigable by kayaks or canoes.

In the state of North Carolina, the government assesses ownership of submerged lands under navigable waters, and the public retains the right to use and enjoy these waters. Therefore, while riparian property owners can exclude the public from physical docks, they cannot prevent the public from utilizing the water under and adjacent to these docks.

Furthermore, the right to wharf out must not unreasonably interfere with the rights of other riparian owners. This means that the riparian corridor starts at the property line at the shoreline and extends outward perpendicularly to the deep water channel.

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To determine the location of this corridor, refer to the diagram provided by the North Carolina Division of Coastal Management.

If your boat slip is located in a marina, it’s essential to understand that the ownership can be transferred in various ways. Carefully read and comprehend the ownership documents, and consider seeking advice from a licensed North Carolina attorney. Since there is no industry standard, it’s impossible to describe the legal structure of all boat slips. However, marinas are typically organized into three main categories:

  • Membership: In this situation, the land, docks, and structures are owned by an entity, often a corporation. When you purchase a slip, you receive a “membership certificate,” which is essentially a contract. It does not grant you any ownership or easement over the land or docks. It’s crucial to fully understand the rights and obligations associated with this type of membership, as non-payment of assessments can lead to revocation.

  • Appurtenant Boat Slips: Here, the slips and the adjacent land are owned by the subdivision owner’s association. When you buy a lot, you are provided with a deed that guarantees exclusive use of a particular slip. Reading the subdivision restrictive covenants is crucial to understanding the rights and obligations that govern these slips.

  • Boataminiums: In North Carolina, the establishment of condominiums is regulated by Chapter 47C of the general statutes. According to this statute, “real estate” can include spaces filled with air or water. In the case of boataminiums, the “unit” refers to the area surrounded by the fingers of the pier, with air space on top and the river or sea bed at the bottom. This essentially creates a box filled with air and water. The piers are typically described as limited common elements, and as the purchaser, you acquire a real property interest in the riparian land. Understanding the declaration of condominium and governing bylaws is vital in this scenario.

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In conclusion, if you’re considering buying a boat slip or waterfront property with the intention of constructing a pier, taking the time for thorough investigation is crucial. Enlisting the help of a knowledgeable real estate broker and attorney will ensure that the conveyance, regardless of its form, meets your needs and expectations.

True to the Garrity Traina motto of being a “new breed of broker,” Jeff Baker brings with him twelve years of experience as a licensed attorney specializing in real estate law. Having represented numerous buyers, sellers, builders, and developers in real estate transactions, Jeff offers a unique perspective on real estate sales.