Waterway Bordered by Private Land Deemed “Navigable-in-Fact”—Owners of the Land Cannot Prohibit Public Use of the Waterway
The Third Department, in a full-fledged opinion by Justice Garry, over a two-justice dissent, determined that a waterway bordered by private land in the Adirondacks was “navigable-in-fact” and the owners of the land (plaintiffs) bordering the waterway could not prohibit public use of the waterway. The waterway was deemed “navigable-in-fact” even though a portion of it consisted of rapids which required canoeists to carry their canoes on a privately-owned path along the rapids:
Pursuant to the common law, a waterway on private property that is not navigable-in-fact is owned by the adjacent landowners, but a waterway that is navigable-in-fact “is considered a public highway, notwithstanding the fact that its banks and bed are in private hands” … . The State cannot alienate the right of the public to travel on a navigable-in-fact waterway by transferring title in its bed and banks to a private owner … . As riparian owners never obtain ownership interests in the waters of navigable-in-fact waterways, a judicial determination that the public has the right of navigation does not result in a taking for public use without compensation … . Accordingly, the import of a judicial determination that a waterway is navigable-in-fact is that it has always been open to the public in that character, even though the riparian owners may not have believed it to be, and no trespass was committed by a traveler who navigated upon it before a court ruled upon its navigability. * * *
…[W]here, as here, the State has no sovereign or proprietary ownership interest in the land and the waterway in question passes through private property, its navigability-in-fact is determined by a common law examination of “evidence of [the waterway’s] actual practical use or evidence of capacity for practical use” … . Historically, this analysis turned on whether the waterway had the capacity to be used for commercial transportation; the public was deemed to have the right to travel on “every stream which is capable, in its natural state and its ordinary volume of water, of transporting, in a condition fit for market, the products of the forests or mines, or of the tillage of the soil upon its banks” … . More recently, the Court of Appeals clarified that commercial use is not the only relevant factor, and that a waterway’s capacity for recreational use is also significant in determining its navigability. “[W]hile the purpose or type of use remains important, of paramount concern is the capacity of the river for transport, whether for trade or travel” … . The Court of Appeals stated that this holding neither altered nor enlarged the applicable common-law analysis and was “in line with the traditional test of navigability, that is, whether a river has a practical utility for trade or travel” … .
Accordingly, the Waterway’s navigability-in-fact must be determined based upon its utility for travel or trade as revealed by the testimony, affidavits, maps, photographs, historical records and other evidence in the voluminous record. * * *
The Waterway’s narrow, shallow character does not preclude such a finding, as a stream that can carry only small boats may nevertheless be navigable-in-fact … . Likewise, neither the portage around the relatively short Mud Pond rapids nor the presence in the Waterway of other incidental obstacles such as beaver dams and fallen trees renders the Waterway nonnavigable, as “occasional natural obstructions do not destroy the navigability of a [waterway]” … . On the contrary, the presence of such occasional obstructions in a navigable-in-fact waterway gives rise to a public right to circumvent them by “mak[ing] use, when absolutely necessary, of the bed and banks, including the right to portage on riparian lands” … . Friends of Thayer Lake LLC v Brown, 2015 NY Slip Op 00420, 3rd Dept 1-15-15