Meet Bill Swaim, the Florida Investor Buying Up Millions of Dollars in Underwater Land

Swaim buys submerged terrain along the Intracoastal Waterway, then charges for access

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Jeffrey Eder is a family guy. The 58-year-old orthodontist is a father of two, who has lived in the Boynton Beach, Fla. area for close to 30 years, running his practice in a charming green-gabled building he designed himself, and spending weekends on the water.

In 2009, Eder bought several lots on the barrier island city of Ocean Ridge, across the Intracoastal Waterway from Boynton Beach. He built a 4,000-square-foot home facing Ocean Drive on one of them for his family, with five bedrooms, four bathrooms, a pool out back, and a dock on the mangrove-filled lagoon behind the house, from where he could take the boat out onto the Intracoastal.

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It seemed an ideal setup, a block from the ocean, direct access to the water, a wonderful place to raise the kids — one of whom turned into a pitcher for the Miami Marlins — to tend to his patients, and enjoy South Florida’s weather. 

Then William Swaim turned up. 

Swaim is a Midwesterner by birth and Floridian by choice, who specializes in flooded land. The Delray Beach resident found a legal loophole that has allowed him to claim ownership of parcels that are fully underwater. 

The theory rests on the question of where the land ends and the sea begins — where what was once land is now submerged, and what was once sea can be made into land — in a move that could significantly affect who owns what on Florida’s valuable coasts. 

Swaim, who goes by Bill, started small, uncovering abandoned parcels of submerged land that had once been private beachfront lots in places like Pompano Beach and Ocean Ridge, and claiming them as his own. 

Once successfully claiming title, Swaim sued landowners whose docks floated above his property, boat companies whose boats motored through it, and giant corporations whose cables ran across it, earning several hundred thousand dollars and many angry neighbors in the process.

Swaim downplays any novelty in his business model. “It’s normal real estate development,” the 63-year-old told Commercial Observer. “Instead of trees or grass on a piece of property, it’s just water.”

With lawsuits pending in various counties — one with a band of Pompano Beach homeowners, another with cable companies who service internet giants like Amazon and Google — Swaim went in for the kill in 2022. 

He had assembled several parcels of mostly submerged land into a 4-acre site directly on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton. After spending years finagling legal control of the site, which is zoned for single-family use, he put it on the market for $43 million. Once filled in, the submerged parcel would offer an enviable swath of oceanfront property, a rarity in South Florida’s popular coastal towns. 

Water rights

Artificial land is par for the course in Florida. Its most famous island — Miami Beach — is itself human-made. A series of founding fathers, including Carl Fisher, transformed what was once a slim sandbar into the billion-dollar barrier island it is today, with the help of an elephant. Ever since, its famed white sandy beaches have been formed by trucked-in sand from the ocean floor, which is replaced whenever the sand washes away. 

“It’s a real place,” famed gallerist Micky Wolfson insisted of his hometown. But a manufactured one.

Fisher was acting at a time before condo penthouses sold for $35 million, or a night on his creation could cost you almost $4,000. It’s hard to believe that today, all these decades later, there remains land — dry or wet — that hasn’t yet been milked for all its worth. 

Swaim may be on to something then.

According to Florida law, open water is sovereign land belonging to the state beginning from the mean high-water line.  Adjacent landowners may have rights to use it for boating, swimming and other uses under a legal category called “riparian rights.” 

To be considered sovereign land, the water must have been naturally “navigable” at the time of Florida’s statehood in 1845, or it must have become that way naturally and incrementally over the years, as the water line changed. By contrast, bodies of water that have been created artificially — such as coves, human-made lakes or dredged inlets — may be privately owned, and abutting landowners don’t have riparian rights by default. 

The Intracoastal Waterway, which runs along South Florida’s coast, creating its famed barrier islands, fits that description, according to Swaim, because it is a human-made body of water. “The interesting thing about the Intracoastal is that the institutional knowledge of who owns what has just disappeared,” said Swaim, who seems to have encyclopedic knowledge of the minutiae of land rights.

Swaim’s family developed subdivisions in their hometown of West Lafayette, Ind., and later owned a utility as well, which is how Swaim learned all about easements, rights of way, and how much history is in a chain of title — as well as how few people know how to trace that chain of title. 

“I grew up reading abstracts as a kid,” Swaim said. “My grandfather was a developer, my dad was a developer; it’s all I’ve ever known, really.”

After graduating from Purdue University in the 1980s, Swaim moved to Florida to pursue a job in real estate. It was during an early project in Delray Beach, back in the ’90s, that he learned that the Intracoastal was human-made. “The intracoastal and all the land on either side is dredged, filled and owned by private individuals, with minor exceptions for existing lakes. That’s what everybody did forever. And you can still do it today.”

That was his “aha!” moment, because if the Intracoastal was artificial, it meant it was likely private property. Because while governments can sell sovereign land to private individuals, the sale doesn’t supersede the public trust doctrine, so that land can be used only in a way that benefits the public interest, even once sold. 

But if the land had always been private — it doesn’t matter if it’s dry or submerged — it remains private. 

Get off my water

This is the exact situation at the crux of Swaim’s case against Jeffrey Eder.

In 2015, Swaim purchased a 3.3-acre parcel of mostly submerged mangrove forest along the inlet where Eder lives, behind the Ocean Ridge Town Hall. It’s a couple parcels up, and across the canal — called Spanish Creek — from the Eder home. 

Swaim claims that his parcel, owned by Waterfront ICW Properties LLC, is private property, so anyone who crosses it without paying for access is trespassing. Unfortunately for Eder and his neighbors, crossing Swaim’s “land” is the only way to exit the inlet. The same goes for the residents of the 50-unit Wellington Arms condo across the lagoon from Swaim’s parcel. 

Swaim initially charged the homeowners $150,000 for lifetime access to the water, and when they refused to pony up, he sued them in Palm Beach County court for trespassing. They pushed back. “Waterfront is attempting to extort money out of all of us for using water that’s been freely available since the beginning of time,” Eder said during a deposition in December 2022. 

A year after Swaim’s initial contact, Eder sold the lot neighboring his own to local tile contractor Michael Hummel, who proceeded to build a boxy postmodern home on the lot. He also modified an existing dock on the canal to store a succession of larger boats: the 35-foot Statement, a 38-foot Nor Tech, then a 39-foot one, and finally the 45-foot Nor Tech that sits there today, big enough to seat 12, with four 450-horsepower engines. Hummel used to own two jet skis too, which are visible in the screenshot images used in the County Appraiser’s Office, but he sold them. 

“When you have a boat, you don’t want to be a jet-skier,” Hummel said during his deposition, also in December 2022. “You go start it up, the batteries are dead. It’s such a waste.”

Both are contesting Swaim’s claim that he owns part of the waterway on which they live, never mind that he has the right to charge for access to it. “He purchased a small piece of property on the western edge of that, that was something like 1.29 acres, and somehow managed to claim that he now owns all the way across the seawall, and I don’t believe that,” Eder said in his deposition. “He wanted to hold his neighbors hostage and extort money from them, like he does in every single one of his other properties.”

Swaim waves off his opponents’ criticism. “[Eder] is a developer. He would have known that he didn’t have any rights to use other people’s property. That’s an amenity,” said Swaim. “Nobody needs a boat.”

Eder and Hummel did not respond to requests for comment. Mauro declined to comment on ongoing litigation.

In 2019, a judge sided with Swaim, ruling that Spanish Creek did not exist in its current form when the State of Florida was formed. Therefore land submerged underneath it could conceivably be claimed as private property. 

Cory Mauro, the lawyer representing both Eder and Hummel, argued that the judge’s ruling only addressed whether the land was sovereign, not whether Swaim owned it, which he argues is the real issue at stake and isn’t supported by the chain of title. Mauro also argued against the judge’s determination itself. He quoted U.S. legal precedent that artificial bodies of water can over time come to be treated as natural since they are an integral part of the landscape, and no longer a private financial investment.

This is of crucial importance because Florida’s long coast is forever changing, by both natural and artificial means. It’s even more crucial now, as sea levels encroach upon what was once land, and as wetlands become ever more important for absorbing storm surge and king tides. 

“From a resilience perspective, any development in the coastal area needs to make sure they’re taking into account sea level rise,” said James Byrne, director of strategy and policy at the Florida chapter of the Nature Conservancy, an environmental organization based in Maryland. 

“What happens if you have a natural shoreline, it helps to spread out that water over a broader space and reduce the natural energy that comes in,” Byrne explained. That’s why natural buffers like mangroves or wetlands are superior to seawalls. “Waves from boats get buffered by the mangroves or other species, compared to a seawall where it just bounces back out.”

The resilience issue is more clearly on display at Swaim’s $43 million listing several miles south of the Eder and Hummel homes, on the Intracoastal Waterway in Boca Raton. Swaim has offered to fill in the mostly submerged site and build a required seawall for a further $3.5 million. 

%name Meet Bill Swaim, the Florida Investor Buying Up Millions of Dollars in Underwater Land
3000 NE 8th Avenue, Boca Raton, Fla. Photo: Google, NOAA, U.S.Navy, NGA, GEBCO, Landsat/Copernicus

But it took eight years of legal entanglement to get there. First, Swaim had to establish title, and get the underwater parcels listed on the tax rolls, a process on which he did not let up. “Your constant harassment of my staff is not having any impact on the manner in which your deeds are being processed,” Gary Nikolits, the Palm Beach County property appraiser for the last 30 years, wrote to Swaim in 2016, according to court filings. 

Swaim did eventually prevail, then proceeded to sue five fiber-optic companies whose cables ran underwater through his hard-won property. That was resolved only when Google got involved, and later purchased a portion of the site from him, according to Swaim. “When we sued Google, that’s when the adults came into the room, and we got checks,” Swaim said. (Swaim has separately sued another five fiber-optic companies for $250 million using a similar argument, in a string of cases that are still ongoing.)

Next, Swaim sought authorization from the Army Corps of Engineers to truck in fill material and build a 716-linear-foot seawall along the perimeter, which would block a row of houses if approved. More importantly, it would eliminate the site’s 1.1 acres of saltwater mangroves, nearly two-thirds of an acre of seagrass, and a large expanse of open water containing a mix of algae, muck and sand, according to an Army Corp report on Swaim’s proposal in 2018.

Swaim eventually prevailed in court on all fronts, allowing him to market the property beginning in the fall of 2022.  Since then, he’s been getting three to four interested calls a week, Swaim said, though as of June there were no takers. He priced the land based on comps in the area — as one does. “The reason why it’s so much is because Boca is averaging about $10 million on average for lots on the Intracoastal,” said Swaim. “And most lots are 2,000 square feet.”

He plans to market his many other parcels, as well, once they’re free from litigation.

Against the flow

The clash between development and coastal resilience is hardly unique to Swaim. It’s only that he is quite literally unearthing land that, in some cases, has already been reclaimed by nature. Reversing that has wider implications. 

The main issue that concerns us is the ability of the natural habitats to adapt quickly enough to the change, having space to migrate as the water levels increase,” said Byrnes. “Any of the coastal species, like red mangroves, if they don’t have space to migrate out, the water could get too deep for them. There needs to be space for them to migrate up. Whenever it runs into a hard structure that’s the limit of where it can migrate.”

Florida already has extensive precedent, as well as existing programs, in utilizing public lands for resilience purposes, such as stormwater absorption, species conservation and biodiversity encouragement. Debates over highest and best use for coastal land have intensified over time, as development competes with nature for ever-decreasing space. 

Swaim’s legal reasoning isn’t really at play in those discussions, but its consequences are.

When the high-water line shifts over time, its status as public or private can be adjusted, to account for changes. If the water line shifts due to a one-time shock, the change is considered an “avulsion” event and the high-water line remains fixed to maintain stability in terms of property rights, explained George S. Reynolds, a Florida lawyer with experience in riparian cases. The “avulsive” change can either be induced artificially or via a natural event such as a hurricane. (If private land suddenly gets filled with water during a storm because a seawall broke, say, neighboring homeowners can’t suddenly start kayaking through their neighbor’s yard.)

Climate change falls somewhat in between. “There’s no ruling out there whether climate change is an avulsive event,” said Reynolds. “From 2010 to 2023, the water line changed. It’s perceptible, but day to day it’s imperceptible.”

The Swaim cases are reverberating through various government corridors, partially because they are hard to ignore. Swaim has filed more than 50 lawsuits in Broward and Palm Beach counties in a little over a decade, highlighting procedural gaps in the way coastal property rights and title are assessed. “You’re asking the court to determine if [a lot] was submerged in the 1840s and if there was an avulsion event,” Reynolds said of Swaim’s various lawsuits. “These courts are making decisions that could set a precedent that have ramifications for many other owners.”

In addition to the broader ramifications, Swaim has targeted a variety of government offices and officials in his suits, or at least required their input, putting a strain on government resources. That includes the cities of Boca Raton and Pompano Beach, county appraisers Marty Kiar and Nikolitz, the South Florida Water Management District, the State Attorney’s office, the Florida State Department of Highways, and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, to name a few. 

In response, there are ongoing attempts to address the matter through legislative or administrative means, said Reynolds, which Swaim himself has requested.

But in the meantime, Swaim appears to have free rein, as long as he’s willing to battle it out in court. 

“He’s a genuine person and a land speculator; he’s not just a kook,” said Reynolds. “Property is a constitutional right and there are many properties out there that are submerged today that are not sovereign. If he can establish that he’s the lawful owner, he can demand [folks] remove improvements or pay him what he believes he’s owed.”

A lawyer involved in Swaim’s many suits was less sanguine about Swaim’s model of demanding ransom from residents who’ve spent years or decades kayaking, fishing and boating on what appears to be public water. 

This guy comes along, buys a piece of property and tries to weaponize it,” the lawyer said. “[My clients] are spending untold amounts getting their water back.”

But Swaim says he’s nonplussed by people assuming property rights don’t exist when the property is covered by water. “People get stupid when they see water,” he said.

In addition to the many parcels entangled in litigation, Swaim continues to target Intracoastal parcels with absentee owners, and sometimes gets calls from heirs or feuding family members to buy their land. He also plans to continue his campaign against fiber-optic companies that are, in his opinion, ignoring basic property laws with impunity. 

“I already found them,” Swaim said. “I just don’t have the time to mess with them.”

Chava Gourarie can be reached at cgourarie@commercialobserver.com.

Update: Swaim settled with a group of fiber-optic companies on the $43 million site, but did not sue them for $250 million as previously stated. That is a separate case, also along the Intracoastal in Boca Raton.