Waterfront Property: Who Owns it?

If you are looking at waterfront property, you really want to know where your property ends and the lake begins. You definitely don’t want a “gap”.

So, where’s the line?

First of all, you have to begin with the water. Let’s assume that the body of water is sufficiently large that it is considered to be a navigable water. That basically means that it can accommodate boats, even very small boats. Obviously, this will include lakes, and numerous rivers, but certainly not all of the tributaries.

Second, you will have to figure out where the body of water ends. A larger lake or bay or navigable river will have fluctuations in terms of the level of water within it. However, the boundary is clearly defined. It doesn’t move or go up and down with the water level or in and out as the waves roll in. It is a permanent, fixed location.

Third, you will have to locate the first sign of permanent vegetation. That is the line in the sand. That’s the spot where the body of water ends and the land begins. Annual vegetation, being grass, weeds, and recurring growth is not a sufficient indicator. You need to find a tree, or a big bush that has been there for some reasonable period of time.

Fourth, once you have located this line of permanent vegetation, you need to mark out a continuous strip along the shoreline. This will represent the division between the body of water and the land. Basically, if you were on a beach in the Caribbean you would take a piece of tape and wrap it around all the palm trees closest to the water. This would provide you with the high water mark, and define the boundary.

Fifth, you need to measure a distance of one chain, or sixty six feet (66′) from the boundary. This new strip of property will form a “road allowance” around the perimeter of the lake, river or other navigable body of water.

Sixth, you need to mark out the lots. Let’s assume that they are two hundred feet (200′) in depth, and one hundred feet (100′) wide. Since the water body is irregular in shape, the frontages will never work out to exactly one hundred feet. The same thing might be true for the rear lot line. You may have some pie shaped lots and some reverse pies, but you will really never be able to lay out a plan of subdivision completely with the same sized lots.

Now, those 6 steps are all very nice assuming that you are the original surveyor. Most of Ontario was laid out in the middle of the 19th century, and many areas long before that. The important consideration to bear in mind is that the artificial boundary line doesn’t move. It stays put, and it’s really the first sign of permanent vegetation. The edge of the water is not the edge of the body of water. It’s like a bathtub, sometimes it’s filled and sometimes it’s not. So, the liquid that you see is transient. It moves, it’s there, then it’s gone, but the legal boundary for the body of water (lake) will be the high water mark.

However, a very significant matter is whether the property has “riparian rights”. If it does, and there are natural changes in the topography over time, these rights will keep the property in contact with the water, without a “gap”. If there are no such riparian rights, this is indeed a risk that might materialize.

From the 1850’s to present we have about 17 decades of changes. Some of the changes are man-made and some of the changes are natural. One thing for sure, it’s not the same! Docks, breakwaters, decks, structures, buildings, reclaimed areas (filled with land) and excavated areas filled with water all change the original water’s edge as found by the first surveyor. Again, we need to be reminded of the basic principle: the lake doesn’t move (unless that occurred naturally). So, even after years of significant changes one still has to look back to the original survey prepared by the Province to get an idea of where to begin.

The location of the boundary could be changed by the Land Registrar or through a Court Order.

Let’s have a look at certain popular areas, and the relationship between the land and the water.

Water Lots

It is recognized that there are certain areas which are truly part of the body of water, but it is advisable that they be placed in private ownership. In this circumstance, a grant of appropriate water lots, with all their attendant rights are provided to the owner. This person obtains “good title” to the property. A deed is registered in the Land Registry Office and the owner acquires suitable rights. The use may be limited to constructing docks or buildings and structures on top of piers etc. or utilizing the area as a marina. In any event, the owner can exclude others from trespassing and to all intents and purposes has all the legal rights that one would have with the ownership of land.

A good example of the use of water lots will be found in the area occupied by Ontario Place in Lake Ontario, and the area occupied by the Toronto Island Ferry at the base of Bay Street.

The Opened Road Allowance

You will come across many areas where the road runs right along the water’s edge. This is an opened road allowance. It’s just like all the other road allowances surrounding the perimeter of navigable waters, but this time there’s an actual road. The Province or the municipality have constructed a highway within the road allowance. The normal width of a lane of traffic is 11 feet. This means that you need 22 feet for a highway with one lane in each direction. Since you are building it within the 66 foot road allowance, you will have to move it away from the water’s edge in many cases. You will also want to generally keep it as straight as possible, otherwise it will not be useable.

An excellent example of this type of highway along a road allowance will be found in the Jackson’s Point area on the south shores of Lake Simcoe. You will note in this area, that all the cottages are setback from the road, and that there may be some space between the travelled portion of the highway and the water’s edge to have a small deck and a dock.

The Unopened Road Allowance

This is typical with smaller lakes. There is really no particular need to travel around the perimeter, so the 66 foot road allowance was never opened. This is absolutely ideal for cottagers, because this means privacy. No one is going to come along and set up tent between your property and the water.

Most of the larger lakes in Muskoka, including lakes Joseph, Rosseau and Muskoka have unopened road allowances. Many municipalities will permit the adjacent cottage owner to purchase the 66 foot unopened road allowance between the front of their lot and the lake.

However, sales have not been brisk. As soon as one neighbour essentially buys their 66 foot strip, then this prevents the municipality from ever constructing a real road. Nevertheless, there are some issues that should be noted:

· The dock

· The deck

· The boathouse

· The bunkie

· The shed

· The septic system

· The main cottage

Where are these structures?

Remember that years ago, people wanted to be as close to the water as possible. Also, they didn’t like to clear much land. The buildings were often homemade and rather inexpensive. No one hired a surveyor. And, few knew of the related rules, regulations and laws pertaining to construction and ownership of waterfront property.

So, they built all these things wherever they wanted, just trying to keep away from the neighbours. They often thought that the lake was where the water was, and it moved in and out with the waves. They built the dock, deck and boathouse over the water. Now, we know that’s way out in the lake, but they didn’t think of that. They thought that it’s convenient, and where else would you want to put a dock or boathouse anyway?

The Bunkie, the shed and the main cottage were next. Again, let’s get the best views of the lake, so that means as close as possible. And, no one thought about a 66 foot road allowance. Remember that around some lakes, the first sign of permanent vegetation can be 100 to 150 feet from the water’s edge. That’s the high water mark. Plus another 66 feet before you get to the lot! But, that doesn’t matter too much since everything has already been built.


Over 7 or 8 decades property values went from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars. So, now it makes a difference! A mortgagee is not going to loan you any money for the cottage when it’s sitting on the 66 foot road allowance (which you don’t own) in front of your property. Fortunately, most of the value is in the lot, so it’s possible that you still might qualify for enough money.

However as time goes by, it appears that many significantly valued buildings and structures sit on the lake, which is Crown lands, the 66 foot road allowance which is owned by the municipality and there is little left to sit upon the property that you actually own, except perhaps for the septic system.

The lot might be worth $250,000, the main cottage might be worth $150,000 and associated outbuildings and structures another $25,000. So, where does that leave us? It probably means that you have $175,000 worth of buildings not on your property. They are sitting either in the lake or on the road allowance in front of your property.

Once you know the rules, in order to create and maintain value in your cottage property you will want to ensure that the buildings are on your property, that they comply with the setbacks, and that you purchase the 66′ road allowance. As for the dock and the boathouse, perhaps you can obtain a licence from the Province to permit it to remain.

Quickly to summarize, the lakes are Crown lands. They will be either under the ownership and control of the Federal Crown (the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, or the Provincial Crown in terms of the smaller lakes. The sixty six foot road allowance will be Federal, Provincial or municipal. A few phone calls will provide you with an answer. Generally, developed areas with organized municipalities will have ownership vested in the municipality.

So, waterfront properties are fraught with issues and it’s best to undertake your research before you buy.

Brian Madigan LL.B., Broker

Comments 6

  1. I just wanted to know if 66 feet from the high water mark is crown land or not. I live on the North Bruce peninsula where the municipalities seem to take over. What if the Ojibway win their court case for all the road allowances?

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      Generally, the answer would be that this is Crown land. But, there are exceptions. I don’t know whether this particular property might fall into an exception. I am not familiar with the lawsuit that you referred to.

  2. I once read that there are considerations for property owners with a property line and rules related to extending the property line out into the lake. this is not about ownership but rules related to where you can build docks, water pump access to the and an assumed level of accommodation is required for property owners to have quiet enjoyment of the water in front of their property.

    I read something on this matter some years ago and need this material but cannot seem to find it. any help on this general topic would be greatly appreciated.

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  3. You should qualify your statements as very ‘location specific’ since they can actually be misleading.

    The definition of the lot is on the deed – if there is a crown patent or claim specifying a road allowance then the property owner only owns to the road allowance. This road allowance is the case in many smaller lakes in Ontario – but not along the shores of the Great Lakes – Erie, Huron etc.

    The high water mark legal definition in Ontario only refers to tidal bodies of water – thus case law has stated that any reference to a water mark is actually the edge of the water – on controlled lakes – the normal water level. The MNR (Ministry of Natural Resources) tried to force using a “high water mark” and has since abandoned that reference. Unless there is some crown patent, claim or road allowance clearly defined, lakefront property owners own to the waters edge. And yes – that can move with accretion or erosion.

    People posting statements as factual should actually back up their statements with case law.

    Many people think ‘beaches’ all along the great lakes are public – and this is where the misleading statements cause problems – because they are not – which is my point here.

    “law in Ontario was clearly defined in 1852 and definitively settled 25 years ago in the 1971 case of Ontario (Attorney General) v. Walker, affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada. The case started with a very lengthy trial over the ownership of beaches on the north shore of Lake Erie in the Township of Bertie, commonly known as the Thunder Beach area. The trial judge held that a riparian owner owns to the low water’s edge, adopting an 1852 decision of an appellate division of Upper Canada, as it then was.”

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