DUCK BLINDS AND RIPARIAN RIGHTS
On Maryland’s Easter Shore, with fall comes duck hunting season, and with hunting season come disputes. This article provides a brief overview of your rights to license and use a duck blind in Maryland, with particular emphasis on the rights of owners of waterfront property.
The rivers, streams and marshes of the Chesapeake provide some of the best duck hunting in America. As Judge Melvin of the Court of Appeals observed more than sixty year ago, “[d]uck shooting is a traditional Maryland sport, and the Chesapeake Bay has long been famous for the rare advantages which its waters afford.” Boyd v. Schaefer, 184 Md. 621, 629-30, 42 A.2d 721 (1945).
In recognition of Maryland’s special relationship with duck hunting, the General Assembly has granted to owners of riparian property the right to establish and maintain duck blinds on or near their property. “Riparian property” is defined as “land bordering on, bounded by, fronting upon, abutting or adjacent and contiguous to a body of water.” Becker v. Litty, 318 Md. 76, 82, 566 A.2d 1101, 1104 (1989). If you own property next to a river, bay, creek or marsh, you are a riparian.
As the law evolved in England and the Colonies, the right to access the water from one’s own property emerged as the fundamental riparian right. People’s Counsel for Baltimore County v. Maryland Marine Mfg. Co., Inc., 316 Md. 491, 502, 560 A.2d 32, 37 (1989). Additional riparian rights include accretion and reliction (the right to own the new land left behind by deposits on the shoreline and receding waters), and the right to make improvements into the water in front of riparian property (e.g., to build a pier). Worton Creek Marina, LLC v. Claggett, 381 Md. 499, 850 A.2d 1169 (2004).
These common law riparian rights, however, are not the only riparian rights recognized in Maryland. Of particular importance to hunters, the General Assembly has granted riparian landowners certain preferences with regard to duck hunting. According to Section 10-607 of the Natural Resources Article of the Maryland Code, riparian landowners may license their shores to establish offshore stationary blinds or blind sites, or to prevent others from licensing their shoreline. Therefore, if you own riparian property, you have the right to build and use duck blinds in front of your property without interference from others. County Com’rs of Kent Co. v. Claggett, 152 Md.App. 70, 831 A.2d 77 (2003). But this right is not absolute or exclusive—to protect your right, you need to obtain a license.
DUCK BLIND LICENSING
To establish a duck blind, you need to obtain a license from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Both riparian owners and non-riparian residents of Maryland may apply to license an offshore duck blind. However, riparian owners have priority, as described below.
Offshore stationary blinds and blind sites may be located in public waters adjacent to licensed riparian shoreline in most areas of the state. A “blind site” is a specific location in the water where a person may hunt wild waterfowl from a boat or raft tied to or anchored at a stake, while a “stationary blind” is a permanent offshore structure built on piling or stakes. Md. Code, Natural Resources § 10-601. The word “site” is often used to refer to the authorized location for a stationary blind. A license is required for a blind site, and a license is required for a stationary blind. (Please note that a blind license is different than a hunter’s license, which is also required for anyone hunting from a stationary blind or blind site.)
In general, offshore blinds must be located within 300 yards of the shoreline or one-third the distance to the opposite shore, whichever is less. Blind sites must be at least 250 yards from any other blind site or stationary blind. Sites must be at least 150 yards from any dwelling, unless the license holder has the written permission of the owner of the house.
Priority for Riparians
For riparian landowners, the deadline to submit a license application is June 1 of each year. A Maryland resident who does not own riparian property may apply for a license for an offshore blind site but not until the first Tuesday in August. Consequently, if you are a riparian property owner, you have priority to license your property for hunting blinds, or simply to block others from obtaining licenses to establish stationary blinds in front of your property.
Riparian landowners who wish to establish an offshore blind must either own at least 250 yards of continuous shoreline or have written permission from adjoining neighbors to total at least 250 yards of continuous shoreline. This is because riparian landowners may not locate an offshore stationary blind or blind site within 125 yards of the property line or where the line would be if it were extended out over the water perpendicular to the shore at the point where the property line reaches the water’s edge. Md. Code, Natural Resources § 10-607(f). A riparian landowner who does not own or have written permission for shoreline totaling at least 250 yards may still establish a blind site (but not a stationary blind) if no other shoreline is licensed within 125 yards of the blind site.
Licensing for Non-Riparians
Beginning on or about August 1 of each year, any resident of Maryland may apply to license up to two blind sites per day. Each license issued to a non-landowner (sometimes referred to as a “squatter”) applies to 250 yards of shoreline, with the blind site located in the middle. All blind sites must be at least 125 yards from previously licensed shoreline. Therefore, there must be at least 250 yards of shoreline that has not been licensed at the time the non-riparian’s application is submitted. Licenses expire on June 30 in the year after the license was issued.
How to Apply
You can get a list of the offices and dates for licensing by calling the Maryland Department of Natural Resources at 410-260-8540.
Riparians must submit an application by mail before June 1 of each year on the form provided by the Department. The application must include:
· a map showing the exact location of the shoreline to be licensed and the exact location of the proposed offshore stationary blinds or blind sites, if any;
· the written permission of adjacent landowners if necessary; and
· the written lease or assignment of the riparian landowner if necessary.
At present, the cost is $20 for a 1-year license or $60 for a 3-year license.
For non-riparians, during the first two days of the licensing period licenses can be obtained at offices established in each county just for this purpose. After the first two days, blind site licenses must be obtained from the Department of Natural Resources Licensing and Registration Service Center for the county where the blind will be located. Non-riparians must pay an application fee of $20 for each license requested.
To assist both riparians and non-owners, the Department of Natural Resources has launched a web-based shoreline mapping application at http://atlas.mdmerlin.net/blinds/ (last visited 8/31/2010). Applicants with Internet access can use this program to print the necessary maps to support the license application.
DUCK BLIND DISPUTES
Trespass and Unauthorized Use
Section 10-615 of the Natural Resources Article prohibits anyone from occupying another person’s licensed blind or blind site, or anchoring or tying to another person’s licensed stake without the written permission of the license holder. If someone is using your blind or blind site without your permission, contact the Department of Natural Resources, which may choose to prosecute violators. If that fails, you may institute proceedings against the violators to get a court order telling them to stop, and you may be able to recover money damages. Consult a lawyer to understand your options.
It is not uncommon for disputes to arise over the placement of duck blinds. Sometimes neighbors don’t agree on the dividing line between two adjacent properties. See, e.g., Sheehy v. Thomas, 155 Md. 688, 142 A. 506 (1928); Councilman v. LeCompte, 179 Md. 427, 21 A.2d 535 (1941); Boyd v. Schaefer, 184 Md. 621, 42 A.2d 721 (1945); Dept. of Nat. Res. v. Adams, 37 Md. App. 165, 377 A.2d 500 (1977). In each of these cases, an irregular shoreline or other geographic considerations complicated the task of figuring out the dividing line. The location of the dividing line is important because of the rule that offshore sites must be 125 yards from the extended property line. Md. Code, Natural Resources § 10-607(f). Where neighboring landowners cannot agree on the dividing line, the courts are called upon to determine a “method of dividing waters. . . [that is] equitable, and fair, to all parties concerned.” Councilman v. LeCompte, 179 Md. at 431, 21 A.2d at 537.
Conflicts with Other Laws and Regulations
In other cases, riparian owners seeking to exercise their rights to establish duck blinds have squabbled with local marinas, Worton Creek Marina, LLC v. Claggett, supra, and with larger property owners, Wampler v. LeCompte, 159 Md. 222, 150 A. 455 (1930). When these types of disputes become lawsuits, Maryland courts consistently uphold the right of riparian owners to license and establish blinds in front of their own property.
If you are having trouble with the placement of duck blinds on or near your property, you should call an attorney skilled in waterfront law and riparian rights.
WHERE TO FIND MORE INFORMATION
The Department of Natural Resources has posted “A Guide to Maryland’s Laws and Regulations Related to Offshore Waterfowl Hunting” at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/wildlife/offshore.html (last visited 9/21/2009).
The text of the applicable laws are available online. Maryland statutes can be found at http://www.michie.com/maryland (last visited 9/21/2009). Click “Maryland Code”, then navigate to the “Natural Resources” article.
The Commonwealth of Virginia has a similar regulatory scheme for the licensing of duck blinds. See Va. Code, § 29.1-344. The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries provides downloadable applications for licenses at http://www.dgif.virginia.gov/forms/?type=2 (last visited 9/21/2009).