What Are the Vertical Limits of Property Ownership?

Bruno Simpson Last Updated Mar 13, 2020 (0) comment

Vertical Property

What are the vertical limits of property ownership?  The question of the vertical limits of land dates back centuries. Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos is an old Latin principle of property law. It is also abbreviated as the ad infernum principle. In English, it means that whoever owns the soil, it is theirs all the way to heaven and all the way to hell. In other words, their property extends from down to the earth’s core and up to the sky above, in short.

Since the Earth is a sphere, private land ownership would mean that each landowner would get a wedge-shaped chunk of earth that tapered down to the Earth’s core. According to the Latin principle of property law, that landowner would also own the air above him.

Unfortunately, in U.S. common law, this principle of property law is valid but limited. The vertical limits are determined by a landowner’s air rights and subsurface rights.  What are the vertical limits of property ownership?


Air Rights

Every building occupies some amount of airspace. A landowner owns as much of the air above their land as he or she can reasonably use in connection with the surface of the ground. This means that the upper limit of what is considered your property isn’t clearly defined.

The Contract Air Mail Act of 1925 and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 led to the idea of the upper airspace as a “public highway.” This meant that planes could pass through the upper airspace over your property.

Additionally, local zoning laws limit the height of buildings. As a result, even if your own the land, you may not be able to build a skyscraper and occupy as much airspace as you want.


Subsurface Rights

The rise of underground subway systems, drainage tunnels, and new technology have solely eroded the ad infernum principle. Governments have deemed these things to be deep enough in the ground that it does not deprive the landowner of his land or its value.

Theoretically, a landowner owns what is beneath their land unless otherwise stated on the title. For example, the minerals, such as gold or copper, beneath your property may already be reserved or sold by the previous owner or by the government.


Other Rights

When you thought things couldn’t get more complicated, there are other regulations that dictate the boundaries of your property and what you truly own.

Littoral Rights

You have littoral rights if your land borders the shore of an ocean or sea. Depending on your state laws, your littoral rights may include private beach access that also guarantees an unobstructed view over the beach to the water.


Riparian Rights

Riparian rights are similar to littoral rights but in relation to a watercourse, such as a stream, river, or lake. You do not have ownership rights to the body of water, but rather have access to the water for personal use.

It’s important to note that larger bodies of moving water, such as a river, have more restrictions because many parties rely on this water, especially downstream.

While landowners may think that all the land within the boundaries belongs to them, it may not necessarily be that simple. Local and federal laws can limit what indeed belongs to you and how you can use the property.

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