Weber v. Board of Harbor Commissioners
85 U.S. 57

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U.S. Supreme Court

Weber v. Board of Harbor Commissioners, 85 U.S. 18 Wall. 57 57 (1873)

Weber v. Board of Harbor Commissioners

85 U.S. (18 Wall.) 57

Syllabus

1. Upon the admission of California into the Union upon equal footing with the original states, absolute property in, and dominion and sovereignty over, all soils under the tidewaters within her limits passed to the state, with the consequent right to dispose of the title to any part of said soils in such manner as she might deem proper, subject only to the paramount right of navigation over the waters, so far as such navigation might be required by the necessities of commerce with foreign nations or among the several states, the regulation of which was vested in the general government.

2. The Legislature of California, on the 26th of March, 1851, at its first session after the admission of the state into the Union, passed an act granting to the City of San Francisco for the term of ninety-nine years the use and occupation of portions of the lands covered by the tidewaters of the Bay of San Francisco in front of the city, lying within a certain designated line, described according to a map of the city on record in the recorder's office of the county, and declared that the line thus designated

Page 85 U. S. 58

should "be and remain a permanent waterfront" of the city. It also provided that the authorities of the city should keep the space beyond the line, to the distance of five hundred yards, "clear and free from all obstructions whatsoever," and reserved to the state the right to regulate the construction of wharves and other improvements, so that they should not interfere with the shipping and commercial interests of the bay and harbor. A subsequent Act of the legislature passed on the 1st of May, 1851, authorized the City of San Francisco to construct wharves at the end of all the streets commencing with the bay, the wharves to be made by extending the streets into the bay for a distance not exceeding two hundred yards beyond the line established as the permanent waterfront of the city, and provided that the space between the wharves, when extended, should remain free from obstructions and be used as public slips for the accommodation and benefit of the general commerce of the city and state. After the passage of these acts the predecessors of the complainant acquired the title of the city, under the grant of the state above-mentioned, to lots lying along the line of the said waterfront, and erected a wharf in front of the lots into the bay.

Held:

1st. That the complainant took whatever interest he obtained in subordination to the control by the city over the space immediately beyond the line of the waterfront and the right of the state to regulate the construction of wharves and other improvements, and that he was not a riparian proprietor, having a right to wharf out into the bay.

2d. That the erection of the wharf was an interference with the rightful control of the city over the space occupied by it, and an encroachment upon the soil of the state which she could remove at pleasure. Having the power of removal, the state could, without regard to the existence of the wharf, authorize improvements in the harbor, by the construction of which the use of the wharf would necessarily be destroyed.

3. The statute of limitations of California declares that the people of the state will not sue any person for or in respect of any real property, or the issues or profits thereof, by reason of the right or title of the people to the same, unless

lst. Such right or title shall have accrued within ten years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced; or unless,

2d. The people, or those from whom they claim, shall have received the rents or profits of such real property, or some part thereof, within the space of ten years:

4. The predecessors of the complainant in 1854 erected a wharf, projecting it into the Bay of San Francisco, and in 1867 obstructions to its use were made, for which the present suit was brought, the complainant contending among other things that he had acquired a title to the wharf by operation of the above statute. Before ten years had elapsed after the erection of the wharf the legislature passed an act creating a board of harbor commissioners, and directing them to take possession of and hold the waterfront to the distance of six hundred feet from the established

Page 85 U. S. 59

front line above-mentioned, with the improvements, rights, privileges, franchises, easements, and appurtenances, and to institute suits for the recovery of wharves and the removal of obstructions to the harbor, and generally to hold the property for the construction of wharves, landings, and other improvements intended for the safety and convenience of shipping.

Held:

1st. That the words in the statute of limitations, "shall have accrued," are used in the sense of "shall have existed."

2d. That the act creating the board of harbor commissioners rebutted any presumption against the title of the state from the lapse of time, and prevented the complainant from acquiring that title by operation of the statute of limitations.

Appeal from the Circuit Court for the District of California, in which court one Weber filed a bill against the Board of State Harbor Commissioners of California, to make them abate and remove certain erections made by them on the waterfront of San Francisco, which he alleged interfered with a wharf rightfully put there by him. The case was thus:

The State of California was admitted into the Union on the 9th of September, 1850. At the first session of its legislature afterwards, namely, on the 26th of March, 1851, an act was passed entitled "An act to provide for the disposition of certain property of the State of California," which granted to the City of San Francisco the use and occupation, for ninety-nine years, of certain lands lying in front of the city covered by the tidewaters of the Bay of San Francisco. This act is generally designated in California as "The Beach and Water Lot Act of 1851." It describes the outer boundary line of the lands according to the survey of the city, and a map or plat of the same on record in the office of the recorder of the County of San Francisco, and in its fourth section declares that this line:

"Shall be and remain a permanent waterfront of said city, the authorities of which shall keep clear and free from all obstructions whatever the space beyond said line to the distance of five hundred yards therefrom."

And the sixth section provides that:

"Nothing in the act shall be construed as a surrender by the

Page 85 U. S. 60

state of its right to regulate the construction of wharves or other improvements, so that they shall not interfere with the shipping and commercial interests of the bay and harbor of San Francisco."

The permanent waterfront thus established is in many places at a great distance from the line of the shore of the bay as that existed at the time California was admitted into the Union. Ships of the largest size then floated at the lowest tide at many points along this line. Such was the case at the point where the wharf of the complainant hereafter mentioned was constructed.

The act above-named was followed, on the 1st of May, 1851, by another act, as follows:

"SECTION 1. The City of San Francisco is hereby authorized and empowered to construct wharves at the end of all the streets, commencing with the Bay of San Francisco, the wharves to be made by the extension of said streets into the bay, in their present direction, not exceeding two hundred yards beyond the present outside line of the beach and water lots, and the city is authorized to prescribe the rates of wharfage that shall be collected on said wharves, when constructed. The space between said wharves, when they are extended, which is situated outside of the outer line of beach and water lot property, as defined by the legislature, shall remain free from obstructions and be used as public slips for the accommodation and benefit of the general commerce of the city and state."

In 1853, the predecessors of the complainant acquired the title of the city to certain lots lying along its waterfront, and being about one hundred and twenty feet in extent. In 1854, they built a platform along and adjoining this front the whole length of the lots, and then constructed a wharf projecting from the center of the platform into the bay, eighty-four feet long and forty feet wide, leaving a space on each side for the approach and dockage of vessels. From that time until the interference by the defendants, in 1867, the then owners and their successors continued in the uninterrupted possession of the wharf and collected tolls and wharfage for its use.

Page 85 U. S. 61

On the 24th of April, 1863, the Legislature of California passed an act entitled "An act to provide for the improvement and protection of the wharves, docks, and waterfront, in the City and County of San Francisco." It created a board of state harbor commissioners, and by its second section required that they should

"Take possession of and hold all that portion of the Bay of San Francisco lying along the waterfront of said City and County of San Francisco, and adjacent thereto, to the distance of six hundred feet into the waters of said bay, from the line of the waterfront, as defined by an act of the legislature, approved March 26, 1851, together with all the improvements, rights, privileges, franchises, easements, and appurtenances connected therewith, or in anywise appertaining thereto, excepting such portions of said waterfront as may be held by parties under valid leases; and the commissioners shall also take possession and have control of any and all such portions of said waterfront, with the improvements, rights, privileges, franchises, easements, and appurtenances, as are held under valid leases, as soon as said leases shall respectively expire and become void."

They were also

"Authorized and empowered to institute actions at law or in equity for the possession of any wharf or wharves, or other rights, privileges, franchises &c., named in this section, or for the recovery of the tolls, dockage, rents, and wharfage thereof; also, for the removal of obstructions, and abatement of any and all nuisances on the waterfront mentioned in this act, and to prosecute the same to final judgment."

The third section proceeded:

"SECTION 3. The commissioners shall have and hold possession and control of the said waterfront, with the improvements, rights, privileges, franchises, easements, and appurtenances connected therewith, or in anywise appertaining thereto, for the following purposes and uses:"

"First. To keep in good repair all the sea walls, embankments, wharves, piers, landings, and thoroughfares, for the accommodation and benefit of commerce. "

Page 85 U. S. 62

"Second. To dredge such number of the docks as the commerce of the harbor may require, to a depth that will admit of the easy ingress and egress of the vessels which load and unload at said wharves and piers."

"Third. To construct such new wharves, piers, landings, and thoroughfares, at the foot of the streets, as the wants of commerce may require."

"Fourth. To construct all works necessary for the protection of wharves, piers, docks, landings, and thoroughfares, and for the safety and convenience of shipping."

"Fifth. To provide for the construction, out of the surplus funds growing out of the revenues arising from said wharves, such sea wall or other structure along the waterfront of said City and County of San Francisco, as shall, upon accurate surveys made for that purpose, be found to be necessary for the protection of the harbor and waterfront of said city and county. . ."

"Sixth. To collect such rents, tolls, wharfage, craneage, and dockage, as may, from time to time, be fixed under the authority of this act, and to disburse and dispose of the revenues arising therefrom as in this act provided."

The twentieth section provided that no person or company should, after the commissioners were qualified, "collect any tolls, wharfage, and dockage, upon any portion of the waterfront of the City and County of San Francisco," nor "land or ship any goods, wares, or merchandise, or other thing, upon or from any portion of the said waterfront of said City and County of San Francisco, unless authorized so to do by the said commissioners, excepting such persons or companies as might hold possession of some portion of the property described in this act by valid leases." And it provided that any person violating or offending against the prohibition should be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof be punished by fine or imprisonment.

The defendants, the harbor commissioners, in 1867 proceeded, under this act, and an act amendatory of and supplementary to it, passed on the 6th of March, 1864, to make improvements in the harbor of San Francisco, intended for its protection and the convenience of shipping, and in the

Page 85 U. S. 63

execution of their works caused piling to be had, and capping and planking on both sides of the complainant's wharf, so as to prevent any approach to it by vessels. To obtain a decree of the court that the erections thus caused were a nuisance, and to compel the defendants to abate and remove them, the complainants filed the present bill, asserting title to the land upon which the wharf was constructed, and alleging that if any adverse claim to it was made, it was barred under the statute of limitations of the state.

The statute of limitations provides that:

"The people of the state will not sue any person for, or in respect of, any real property, or the issues or profits thereof, by reason of the right or title of the people to the same, unless:"

"First. Such right or title shall have accrued within ten years before any action or other proceeding for the same shall be commenced, or unless,"

"Second. The people, or those from whom they claim, shall have received the rents or profits of such real property, or some part thereof, within the space of ten years."

The court below dismissed the bill, and from the decree the complainant appealed to this Court.

Page 85 U. S. 64

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