Riverbank Law in Pennsylvania
A Pennsylvania business recently lost its claim to 4 acres of land along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, due to laws that date back to 1810.
The dispute has its beginning in a dredge and fill project that was run by several state, local and federal agencies in 1960. In order to shore up several piers supporting the Betsy Ross bridge in Philadelphia, the government agencies dredged and filled the riverbank. When the project was finished, 4 acres of additional land were exposed in a location where previously the soil had been completely submerged below the low water line. The business owned 10 acres which became directly connected to the additional 4 acres.
The business sued in 2010 to confirm that it now owed the entire area on the riverbank, now consisting of 14 acres. The trial court dismissed the business’s claims, noting that Pennsylvania law long has provided that all land under navigable rivers is owned by the Commonwealth “in trust” for the people. Natural build up and natural erosion both change a landowner’s riverside land rights, but “man-made” improvements belong to the Commonwealth.
The business appealed, acknowledging that Pennsylvania law does give the Commonwealth control of river beds, but claiming that the law should be changed. Arguing that modern methods of river engineering now put riverside landowners at more risk, the business asked the appeals court to modernize Pennsylvania river laws. The business noted first that many states have modernized their river laws, now giving title to newly exposed banks to the riverbank owners, as long as the owners did not cause the change in the river’s condition. The business also noted that riverbank owners are always at risk of losing large portions of their land to natural river changes and they are most deserving of a chance to reap the benefits of any enlargement of their land. Another concern raised by the business was that when the Commonwealth acquires newly created riverbanks, that acquisition can limit existing owners’ access to the river. Finally, the business noted that the Commonwealth is an absentee owner of many small pieces of river land under the current law and the newly exposed river banks are better manage if owned by existing, adjacent land owners.
The Pennsylvania appeals court rejected the well reasoned arguments of the business, noting simply that Pennsylvania laws going back to 1810 are clear and that the Commonwealth owns man-made additions to the river banks “in trust” for all the residents. The court did acknowledge that if a previous owners rights of access to the river are imperiled by newly created riverbanks, those rights will be protected by the courts.
Delaware Avenue LLC v. Dept. of Conservation, 997 A.2d 1231 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2010).