Hurricane Matthew and Avulsion

Hurricanes can affect property rights, particularly along the coastline. If property is changed suddenly, Florida law treats rights of coastal, upland land owners differently with regard to the addition or subtraction of property. The difference comes down to timing and terminology.

A “gradual and imperceptible” change may trigger possessory interests. While there is a right to possess lands that may come from gradual change, that right is “a contingent, future interest that only becomes a possessory interest if and when land is added to the upland by accretion or reliction.” Walton County v. Stop the Beach Renourishment, Inc., 998 So. 2d 1102 (Fla. 2008).

“Accretion” and “reliction” are bound up with “erosion.” Erosion is “the gradual and imperceptible wearing away of land from the shore or bank.” Id. Accretion is “the gradual and imperceptible accumulation of land along the shore or bank of a body of water.” Id. Reliction is “an increase of the land by a gradual and imperceptible withdrawal of any body of water.” Id.

In contrast, “avulsion” is “the sudden or perceptible loss of or addition to land by the action of the water or a sudden change in the bed of a lake or the course of a stream.” In other words, the key is whether the loss or gain is “gradual and imperceptible,” versus “sudden or perceptible.”

With regard to either an accretion or an avulsion, the deposit of land that is added to the shore or bank is called an “alluvion.” Id.

Under the doctrines of erosion, reliction, and accretion, “the boundary between public and private land is altered to reflect gradual and imperceptible losses or additions to the shoreline.” Id. However, “under the doctrine of avulsion, the boundary between public and private land remains the” mean high water line “as it existed before the avulsive event led to sudden and perceptible losses or additions to the shoreline.” Id.

Hurricanes are “generally considered avulsive events that cause avulsion.” Id. Therefore, alluvion created by hurricanes would not typically alter the boundary line between public and private lands, for the purpose of access to the water, etc.