Riverfront Property, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dock Use

October 9, 2009 | Erin Herbold

In 1964, owners of riverfront property on the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa, subdivided the land into seventeen plots and sold 16 lots private landowners.   Each landowner (and their successors) was granted an easement to use the riverfront property they retained. Over the years, an oral agreement developed among the landowners that each lot would be allowed a one-boat dock. When the owners of the riverfront property sold the shoreline lot, the status quo continued, until 2007 when the Army Corps of Engineers (COE) approved a new dock plan for the shoreline lot. Under federal law, the COE must approve any new dock plan to make sure it is “feasible and appropriate from a navigation standpoint.” However, the COE does not have the right to interfere in property rights disputes.  

This case involved a proposal by the current owner of the shoreline lot for the COE to approve a “community dock.” After the COE approved the plan- which did allow a few lot owners to keep their existing docks- some of the lot owners filed a petition to have the COE decision invalidated.  These owners argued that their written easements granted them permission for a one-boat dock. The trial court determined that the easements did not give the lot owners a right to a dock in a certain location and the dock location approved by the COE met the obligation that the shoreline owner had to them. 

The lot owners appealed, but the Iowa Court of Appeals affirmed. The landowners were guaranteed access to the riverfront and the plan approved by the COE was sufficient for all owners of the 16 lots.  Clancy v. Jessen, et al., No. 9-504/09-0276 (Iowa Ct. App., Oct. 7, 2009).