Building a Wharf in Nova Scotia: Oceanfront Property

Nova Scotia is a province with a proud sea-faring history. Prior to colonization our coastlines were inhabited by Mi’kmaq families who fished for a variety of fish and shellfish species during the summer months. In the 1700 – 1800s thousands of Europeans, Loyalist, and Acadians arrived by sailing vessels and steamships. Now in the 21st century our coastline is dotted with marinas, harbours, and ports which cater to a combination of military and commercial vessels as well as pleasure craft.

To facilitate access to the ocean, many coastal property owners have built wharves, docks, and boat ramps. Some of these structures are built on privately owned water lots. Others are not. In either case is important for property owners to understand the extent of their rights so as to avoid costly removal orders down the road.

If you want to repair a wharf and you do not own the water lot you will need to apply for a permit from the Department of Natural Resources. Similarly, if you want to build, extend, or enlarge a wharf, skidway, or boat ramp and you do not own the water lot then you will need to apply for a permit from the Department of Natural Resources.

You may also require a permit to establish a mooring or permission from your upland neighbour, depending on whether the mooring is within 60 metres of the shoreline. You can find more information about this process here.

A water lot is defined as a parcel of land covered by water, also known as submerged land. “Water lot” is the common term but a more accurate label might be under-water lot because the “parcel of land” is just the seabed. Ownership of a water lot does not extend to ownership of the water column. This is because in Canada the public has a paramount right to pass through navigable waters, including the Atlantic Ocean, and this right can only be interfered with via legislative authority.

Therefore if you would like to build or repair a wharf, ramp, or skidway on oceanfront property and you own the water lot you will have to comply with the federal Navigation Protection Act (“NPA”). The NPA requires anyone building a work that could obstruct navigation to apply to the Minister for approval. Importantly, this approval is not required for certain minor works. It seems that the Minor Works Order will be updated this coming fall so in the meantime property owners planning new projects or repairs to existing structures should contact the Navigation Protection Program directly if they have questions about compliance. Here is the contact information for the Regional Manager of the Atlantic Region: 506-851-3113 or NPPATL-PPNATL@tc.gc.ca.

As a final point, if you are considering purchasing oceanfront property you should make sure that your lawyer and/or surveyor investigate any buildings or structures situated along the shoreline or in the water adjacent to your property. You should never assume that the previous owner acquired the appropriate authorizations before building. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that the previous owner had good intentions without realizing that a permit was required. You could find yourself the proud owner of a structure that cannot be repaired and must ultimately be torn down at your expense.

For more information about your rights as a coastal property owner, please contact Sarah by phone or e-mail: 902.209.6537 | sarah@cslegal.ca

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