Riverbank Ownership

A Pennsylvania business recently lost its claim to four acres of land along the Delaware River in Philadelphia, due to laws that date back to 1810.

The dispute had its beginning in a dredge-and-fill project dating back to 1960. In order to shore up several piers supporting the Betsy Ross Bridge in Philadelphia, governmentagencies dredged and filled the riverbank. When the project was finished, four acres of additional land were exposed in a location where previously the soil had been completely submerged below the low-waterline. The business owned 10 acres that became directly connected to the additional 4 acres.

The business sued in 2010 to confirm that it now owned the entire area on the riverbank, a total of 14 acres. It acknowledged that Pennsylvania law does give the Commonwealth control of riverbeds but it claimed that the law should be changed. Arguing that modern methods of river engineering put riverside landowners at more risk, the business asked the appeals court to modernize Pennsylvania’s river laws. The business also noted that riverbank owners are always at jeopardy of losing large portions of their land to natural river changes and that they are most deserving of a chance to reap the benefits of any enlargement of their land.

The Pennsylvania appeals court rejected the 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 riverbanks “in trust’ for all of the residents. The court did acknowledge that if an owner’s rights of access to the river are imperiled by newly created riverbanks, those rights will be protected by the COllrtS.

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