Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club’s Intriguing Sequel: They DO Own The Water

This morning’s story about the Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club’s claim that it owns not only the land under its water — but the water itself — drew a reaction from readers. A few pointed out special circumstances.

One reader — who asked not to be identified — emailed:

In fact, the yacht basin is privately owned. While the general rule is that the state has jurisdiction over tidal and navigable waters like this, as is the case with both the Cedar Point and Compo yacht basins, the Saugatuck yacht basin was deeded to the yacht club by the Governor of Connecticut, I believe when it was proposed to be dredged out or shortly after.

The reader sent a land record map of the basis. Note 2 on the bottom right shows that none of the other lots facing the yacht basin (Duck Pond) have “any riparian, littoral or other rights to said pond or the waters therein.”

The reader notes that the lots never relinquished those rights. Rather, they were created out of land that did not previously have waterfront access, and were created with the stipulation that they would not have access after the basin was dredged.

The same reader sent a second map (below), adding:

The residential properties facing the yacht basin each have deeds that refer to another map recorded with the town. The deeds refer to the parcels being owned, subject to the notes on this map, including the section calling out each lot as having no rights past their property line with the yacht club.

Evan Stein wrote in the comments section that the Saugatuck Shores homeowner who had been warned of trespassing (via kayak) by the yacht club had not Googled deeply enough.

Evan provided a link to a 2008 tax assessment appeal to the town by Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club. Evan then cites relevant details from the ruling:

The subject property consists of 5 parcels aggregating to 14.68 acres of land, 10 acres of which are the land submerged beneath the body of water known as the Duck Pond, which serves at the plaintiff’s yacht basin.

The subject property is not waterfront property in the classic sense, as it is not on the waterfront of Long Island Sound. A boater must navigate from the Duck Pond boat basin through a dredged channel, past the Cedar Point Yacht Club, past the town mooring fields and the town marina in order to reach the open waters of Long Island Sound.

Harbormaster Bob Giunta responded too. He remembers as a child watching Kowalsky Brothers creating the yacht club, by excavating land.

So it appears that yes, Saugatuck Harbor does indeed own both the land underneath its basin, and the water itself. They do seem to be within their rights to restrict access to it, even by homeowners on its shore.

Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club.

However, that does not settle the question of whether they should.

Matthew Mandell writes:

I used to do a lot of whitewater rafting. Many of these rivers ran through paper company land. While we could navigate the river freely, we could not set foot on the shore, unless it was an emergency. Often the company had a dam that generated its power. Deals were worked out to open the dam for an hour to create the bubble of water for rafting. Others were spring melt runoff.

Regardless of land/ownership the yacht club should act more like the paper companies and allow use.

And Deb Alderson raises an interesting point:

If the yacht club owns the land under the Duck Pond, then do the other homeowners around the Duck Pond own waterfront property, or do they own landlocked property with water views?

It used to be that property taxes were bumped up by about 10% for waterfront property. If those properties are paying a premium for waterfront property, they may have a case for a reduction in their taxes. It’s worth asking the question.

Despite living on the basin, this Duck Pond homeowner appears to have no legal access to it.


31 responses to “Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club’s Intriguing Sequel: They DO Own The Water

  1. Jack Backiel

    “So it appears that yes, Saugatuck Harbor does indeed own both the land underneath its basin, and the water itself.” I guess this quote is the final word. But be careful what you wish for. That would mean Saugatuck Harbor is legally responsible, and financially responsible, for anything and everything that could occur.

  2. Ohh the queers we have and the rich people problems we suffer… but I do wonder about the tax liability and the lack of neighborliness from SHYC… Evan get back to saving the world you know NYC

  3. Jonathan Berg

    Regretting that I’m all out of popcorn today.

  4. James Waldron

    Chalk one up to the Masters & Commanders!

  5. Heller and what’s his face should still apologize for the snottiness of their letter, their attitude toward their neighbors and their, yes, shitty holier than thouness.

  6. The deeding of public trust property to a private owner by the state does not necessarily eliminate the public’s rights in that property. Typically any conveyance is subject to those rights. Nor does the description of the property by a court in the context of a tax appeal mean anything at all for purposes of the public’s right of access. As far as I can see, there’s nothing here that curtails the deep-rooted right of public access to waterways regardless of the ownership status of the land. Kayak away! (The police typically won’t arrest people for trespassing, should it get to that point, when there is a dispute about the legal right of access to property, which there is here. As police are wont to do, they usually throw up their hands, say “that’s a civil matter,” and go back to setting up speed traps.)

    Chalk it up to yet another petty Westport dispute. Interesting, the town claims the right to restrict access to the waters off of Compo (they claim you can’t have a dog in those waters, for example). That’s probably on equally unsound legal footing.

  7. Barbara Sherburne '67

    “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

  8. Jack Backiel

    Whoa Rich S. Are they paying taxes on the entire property that is submerged?

    • Bill Strittmatter

      It would appear so…though not very much since it’s under water so “unbuildable”.

      Don’t worry…other related parcels pick up the docks.

    • Jack Backiel

      This conversation is way above my pay grade. With that said, the water that is “owned” isn’t the same water that was there two months ago, or two years ago. Due to the ebb and flow of water, and evaporation, how can anyone own it? Do you own that evaporated water? If I take a cup of water, can I be arrested for theft?

  9. Patrick K. Evans

    What’s that saying: “Good fences make good neighbors”…….in this case then, have the Yacht Club erect a fence into the “land” below the water to let people know that they are trespassing! I’d love to see that installation.

  10. Hal Hutchison

    Perhaps for the benefit of the neighbors, the Yacht Club could install a tasteful green light for their viewing enjoyment:

    “He stretched out his arms toward the dark water in a curious way, and, far as I was from him, I could have sworn he was trembling. Involuntarily I glanced seaward—and distinguished nothing except a single green light, minute and far away.”

    My wife moved into one of the houses bordering the club in the early eighties. She told me that they were told by the SYC in no uncertain terms to look but never touch. Probably guarding against adverse possession claims.

  11. Makes sense- if you excavate your own backyard so you can let your boat float there… does not give your neighbors the right to also put their boats in what was previously your dirt back yard.

  12. Stephen J Nelson

    Dear Dan,

    I am writing in response to your recent article in 06880 entitled “Yacht Club Claims: We Own the Water!” The article criticized the Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club’s position that it owns the Duck Pond Basin in which yachts belonging to its members are moored.

    SHYC’s property rights were confirmed by the Connecticut Superior Court in Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club v. Vetruvian Group, 2008 Ct. Sup. 8766 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2009). A copy of that decision is attached.

    The Superior Court’s holding in that case is as follows: “[T]he court finds that the plaintiff, Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club, Inc., is the owner of the littoral and riparian rights of the subject property.” The subject property was defined in that case as: “”Being all of the land and premises constituting Duck Pond Yacht Basin, so-called, being the land of the bottom and the sides of said Basin and the waters therein as shown on [Map Number 6746 (Exhibit [Exh.] 9)], lying westerly of the easterly boundary of said Duck Pond, being shown on said map as `Easterly Limit of Duck Pond Prior to Dredging’ and lying below the approximate mean high water line of said Duck Pond.”

    As you can see from the case, SHYC’s property does in fact include the waters in the basin, as well as the land on the bottom of the basin up to the mean high-water line. Our ownership rights result from deeds conveying the property to SHYC and differ from the common and general understanding about access to waterways. As is true of every property owner, SHYC has the right to exclude trespassers from its property, including uninvited persons traversing the water than it owns in the Duck Pond Yacht Basin.

    I would also point out that the Duck Pond Yacht Basin is a very highly trafficked area during the Summer months, with many boats entering and exiting the basin. It is very difficult to see small kayaks from the pilot stations of larger boats, and boats under power cannot easily stop and turn to avoid hazards presented by kayakers in the basin. It is dangerous to navigate the Basin in kayaks, dinghies and other small vessels without alerting us to their presence. Our own members communicate with our dock master via VHF Radio or cell phone when entering and exiting the Basin to ensure their safety.

    Your article quoted at length from a neighbor who is unhappy with SHYC’s property rights. However, her arguments based on her own research into Connecticut law and conversations with an unnamed individual in Westport’s Conservation Department are mistaken. Westport’s First Selectman and other public officials, as well as Westport’s police, are aware of the Superior Court’s decision and SHYC’s rights to the water in the Duck Pond Yacht Basin.

    The Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club has been an important part of the Westport Community for over 50 years. Pictures of the Yacht Club and the yachts moored in the Duck Pond Yacht Basin are often used to depict Westport’s charm and beauty. We are committed to good citizenship and protecting the safety of our members and neighbors.

    Many of our members are Westport residents and avid readers of your blog, which I think has become the main source of news in Westport in recent years. I applaud your reporting on matters of interest to Westport’s residents. I appreciate your consideration of this email and know you will want to set the record straight on this important issue.

    Stephen J. Nelson
    Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club

    • pat prenderville

      The Vetruvian case was about building a dock @ #15, not about accessing the water. It is a distinction with a difference for readers who might not know. They wanted to install a permanent structure in the basin, and were denied.

  13. SHYC bought the property, improved the property at their own expense (creating a beautiful and highly useful asset), and maintains the property at their own expense for the benefit of their members who fund all of the above. The neighbor’s approach seems somewhat entitled – I am entitled to use someone else’s property because I want to. I new home just went up next door to me (replacing a dilapidated eye sore formerly occupied by a surly unfriendly family). There is beautiful pool going in the new home’s back yard. Should I claim that I am entitled to swim and kayak in their pool? If they have a cookout and don’t invite me, should I help myself to their BBQ

    Come on Westport, we are better than claiming rights on other people’s stuff.

  14. Jack Whittle

    One should not confuse ownership with use – I can advisecwith certainty that, regardless of ownership or improvement of an area covered by water, that does not operate to exclude the Public from use of those waters. It is a matter of well-settled law in CT that members of the public have rights, include fishing, boating, hunting, bathing, taking shellfish, even gathering seaweed, and of passing and repassing, on or over accessable waterways.

    Which means they may own it (the land under the water) and may get taxed on it, but the public can freely make use of it (kayaking, canoeing, fishing, snorkling, swimming, etc.) if they can get to it.

  15. Seth Van Beever

    In 1690 William and Mary, reigning monarchs of England, bestow a royal grant for the tidal basin known as Great Salt Marsh (now SHYC). This grant allows for private ownership of the land under the water. Ownership of the marsh predates the United States.

    • A childhood friend grew up in one of the original waterfront houses on duck pond road (house with the purple door) and their parents argument was that would be null and void once the constitution was ratified. But I don’t believe they ever followed it up in court.

  16. There’s a lawyer that is interested in advocacy around this topic, too much interest could result in action that provides public access. That would be a shame.

  17. If they own the water, does that mean that they should take responsibility for the $20k in flood damage that I incurred when the water surged from the yacht basin and onto my property during Sandy?

  18. Michael Isaacs

    The neighbors clearly haven’t thought of the simplest solution…

  19. FREE the OLD MILL Bridge for our kids!!! Let them Jump off!!!! This post and comments were actually pretty funny…only in Westport!!! Thanks D.

  20. Bob Penderson

    Has anyone looked up Bermuda lagoon? Looks like a similiar situation according to Westport GIS EXCEPT whereas Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club pays property tax to the town, Bermuda Lagoon pays nothing? Seems strange.

  21. Disclaimer: I am not speaking in any official capacity on behalf of the club. The below are my personal thoughts and opinions…

    The neighbor could’ve spent a few minutes reading up online. Instead of informing themselves, they have upheld the good old Westport sense of entitlement.

    There are littoral rights, riparian rights, and other types of rights to consider. The L and R in those words mean something (Lake v River). Anyone that knows anything about Westport knows that the Basin is man-made and was originally land not water. There are plenty of records, pictures, etc. Saugatuck Shores and Saugatuck Island have quite some history. A quick visit to Westport GIS website would’ve shown the Club owns the Basin and pays property taxes on it. There is also information about the deed and court case online that reaffirmed the Basin is wholly owned by Saugatuck Harbor Yacht Club. There is a very solid paper trail, from multiple angles.

    What is even more annoying, is that neighbor, was very nicely approached multiple times. Some of the first to approach them very nicely said hey welcome to the neighborhood, just FYI the Basin is owned. I also know at least one person said we’d love to invite you to the club if you are interested in joining, and can give you a tour. Instead, the neighbors persisted in launching their kayaks and blocked other boats from transiting the Basin.

    The Basin is very narrow and there are strict rules in-place to use a Radio to announce entry and exit on a specific channel, Invited Guests and Members are required to follow the rules. There are also signs at the Basin entry by water and the Club entry by land, that indicate it is private property, as well as the Radio instructions. It is a regular occurrence that there are trespassers and from what I have witnessed, every single one is greeted very nicely, and informed. There was a persistent violator who was warned multiple times and actually called the police on himself. If I remember correctly, the police asked if charges are requested to be pressed, and the Club’s representatives nicely declined. I have seen it all: another persistent violator cussing and screaming that he can do whatever he wants and threatening he will keep coming back, after nicely being informed multiple times that it is private property. Repeatedly trespassing is indeed a crime.

    Personally, I have had close calls on a regular basis with trespassers. Running a boat aground can easily result in thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands in damage, not too mention it puts life & limb at risk, and the environment (should there be a fuel spill). After all, Boats do not have brakes, and Wind, Tides, etc, can create some pretty challenging conditions for even one Boat to transit the Basin by itself! Things can get complicated at low tide where a 50+ foot boat might have a foot or so on either side to transit the basin and the propellers or keel are mere inches from the bottom.

    Also, if you want even more bizarre stories, there have been cases where uninvited “guests”, who are not members, have entered the property and used the swimming pool without permission. Other neighbors who are not members have attempted to walk their dogs (and not pick up the poop). There are liabilities involved and the Club must protect itself as well as its ownership.

    FYI all of the neighbors, Westporters, and the alike, are more than welcome to come for a tour and consider joining. I grew up in the area and dreamed as a child of joining the Club. I made those dreams come true several years ago. SHYC is a fantastic club and hidden treasure in Westport. It is very different than what many might think when one says “Yacht Club” and most of the members are hardworking individuals in and around the Westport area. It is a non-profit “working club” where members put in many hours of physical labor and offer their professional services to keep up the grounds, buildings, docks, etc. This help keeps costs down and keeps the barrier to entry to a minimum compared to other clubs. In fact, the break-even point on initiation fees is quick once you factor in reduced slip cost (compared to nearby for-profit marinas), inexpensive fuel, and amenities. The members and common interests of sailing & boating are why many join though. All that said, I implore any that are seriously interested in joining, give the office a call and schedule a tour with one of the New Member liaisons!

  22. May I will offer a possible Westport solution.

    The home owners should look into excavating a parallel kayak channel on their properties that extends beyond the reach of the Club’s claim- all the way to the Sound.

    Just a thought.

  23. Jack Backiel

    Mr. Nelson, If I take a cup of water from the water that is owned, I can be arrested for theft, because that is what happens if one takes something that doesn’t belong to them. It would be an interesting appeal since all the water that was present when that 2009 case was decided, isn’t there anymore. It has evaporated or has been displaced. The next time I’m in town, I’m going to take a gallon of water. You’ll be the first to know.

  24. As a surgeon caring for my friends and neighbors in Westport for over thirty years, I have had the sad responsibility of reporting the death of loved ones who have died piloting small boats in tight navigable channels. Especially in difficult weather, the SHYC basin can be a very narrow and challenging passage for even the most experienced boater and best avoided by small boats. As we emerge from this stressful pandemic experience, let’s remind ourselves to start with common sense and kindness as we comment on others behavior.

    • Thank you Dr. Meinke. In my opinion, yours is the most sensible response so far. Also, I am certain many commenting do not realize the difficulty navigating tight channels with larger vessels and safety is a key factor especially at dawn and dusk when many recreational kayakers do not display proper running lights. Many other additional factors that none of us know about probably involve SYHC’s decision. Because you live right next to a golf course does not mean that you have the right to play on that course unless you pay for a membership or a greens fee.
      On another note…what really baffles me is how people do not do their research when making a significant waterfront real estate purchase. Hmmm. I am going to live across from a yacht club but none of the neighbors seem to have a boat or a dock? Mmmm? Why are there no docks and boats? First place one must look at is personal accountably in their lack of proper land records research.
      As for the nasty petty comments….we have all had a tough year. Time to be kinder.

      • joshua stein

        The dangers related to Kayaking are no joke! Over the years, I have personally rescued probably close to a dozen Kayakers in Westport Harbor, transporting many to the Marine Police. Everything from swept out to the Sound from the tide/wind unable to make it back, to falling out and unable to climb back in, no way to call for help/communicate, some not wearing life jackets, etc. Based on my experience, most of those operating manually propelled craft (kayaks, SUPs, row, etc) do not have a basic understanding of safety, how to give way to powered boats/sailboats, not block channels, etc. I wish there was a boating course requirement. There are even some that will paddle with headphones on completely unaware of their surroundings, not even hearing a boat horn. Then there are those that paddle at night with no lights, those that paddle when the water is cold and hyperthermia is a risk with no life jacket/exposure suit, those that pay no attention to weather reports and go out when there is a high chance of storms or severe weather headed directly our way leading to MOB situations, etc. There is a new law requiring life jackets to be worn after October 1st. I don’t want to digress too much but the situation has been horrible and has lead to many emergency situations. Safety should be top of mind.

  25. Carolanne Curry

    Has anyone so far answered this question for me: did a real estate agent market and present the home(s) as “waterfront property”. And what does it mean for any accountability if it was a successful “waterfront property” sale based on error, omission, and withheld?