Sea front properties in France are often romantically advertised as villa pieds dans l’eau. However, that tells you little about whether the property has the benefit of a tidal swimming pool, moorings, private beach or a pontoon.
And these differences will inevitably have an impact on the value of the property. In many sales the legal status of maritime access is not made clear to buyers. Unless your notaire has a particular knowledge of public maritime law it can be difficult to obtain any definitive answers.
But a word of warning: You must not assume that you will be able to enjoy access to the sea on a private basis.
The Basic Position
The starting point is to ascertain:
· what part of the property you are buying falls within the seller’s title and as such can be transferred to you in the usual way, and
· what part is simply being used by the seller but does not form part of his title.
It can be difficult to establish the exact line at which the private property ends and the public property i.e. the public maritime area starts. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent to UK Land Registry title plans in France.
Any plan that is provided has usually been prepared for local taxing purposes only. Therefore, in practice it may be difficult to ascertain whether a path in front of the property is public property rather than part of the front garden extending on to the beach.
The basic position is that the public maritime domain cannot be owned by a private person and belongs to the French state. As such neither the public maritime domain nor any structure which has been erected on it can be transferred to you as the buyer because the seller does not (and cannot) own it.
In line with this position, basic principles in French law require that wherever possible the natural character of the seafront is preserved and that only light works not liable to have a long term impact on the seafront should be put up. In addition, there are more and more environmental concerns as to the use of the coast and pressure for more collective use of public space as opposed to purely private use of public space. This is particularly true for the Côte d’Azur where it often reflects local political opinion.
Most of the rules are to be found in the General Code of Public Entities which provides that the Government can issue specific rights to people to use the maritime domain subject to various conditions, for example relating to:
(i) the period for which this use is granted,
(ii) the use which can be made of the maritime domain, and
(iii) the building works which they can carry out on the maritime domain.
This means that you can get a temporary authorisation to use the maritime facilities that may be exclusive to you, or may be on the basis that other people are also free to use the facilities.
Grant of a Right
In practice, if any such rights are granted at all, this will only be for relatively short periods of time. In order to retain the benefit of such rights they will have to be renewed. Any rights granted to the seller are personal to him and as such cannot be transferred to you as the buyer.
Accordingly, if you wish to buy a French property, you will be required to make a fresh application for the renewal of any right, for example to use a tidal pool. You should also bear in mind that it is possible for the Government at any time to revoke any authorisation given, and normally no compensation is payable in that event.
Even more, there may be requirements at the end of the period for which the permission was originally granted for any constructions to be demolished and the shoreline reinstated to its natural state. Although an obligation to demolish is normally on the person who built the structure and not on any subsequent owner of the adjacent property, it is something you should be aware of, as there are various situations where you could become liable.
Any application needs to be made to the local Prefect (local central government representative) with a full report of the current condition of the structure and any plans for the structure. This applies whether the application is for a first use of the maritime domain or for a renewal of an existing authorisation which has expired or in respect of which there has been a transfer of ownership of an adjoining property.
The application needs to be prepared in a technical way with professionally prepared drawings and photographs of the condition. It is best not to try to prepare this yourself as the technical input is high. The application is then considered by a commission that then makes a recommendation to the Prefect. Local political pressures may have an effect on the commission’s recommendations. The Prefect is likely to follow the recommendations of the commission but the final decision on any authorisation or refusal to occupy the public domain rests with the Prefect.
Please note that French law is a complex subject and you should not rely on this article without professional advice on the facts of your case.
Solicitor and Chartered Tax Adviser