Lake access can prove problematic for property owners

Riparian rights are not understood or ignored by nonowners looking to use the water.
Basic disagreements quickly can turn into legal action when easements, public parks and road ends on water come into play, according to Ronald Redick. Courtesy Wojtek Dabrowski

Michigan is known for its Great Lakes, but that can be tricky for some landowners who live near them.

Residents who own property along the water do have riparian rights but some of those rights often are misconstrued, according to Ronald Redick, an attorney at Mika Meyers in Grand Rapids who practices municipal, appellate and administrative law, with a focus on zoning litigation, land use and riparian rights litigation, and general civil litigation.

Some of those issues, which can quickly turn from basic disagreements to legal action between landowners, include access to easements, outlots or public parks, road ends and prescriptive easements.

“Michigan is so blessed to have inland lakes and streams everywhere but with the Great Lakes surrounding it, these issues come up everywhere,” he said. “However, with that said, the higher the concentration of the population, the more likely it is to occur. You tend to see these issues litigated more in areas where there is a concentrated development, like vacation lakes, not so much remote lakes that you might see in the Upper Peninsula where there are very few people.”

Lawsuits can arise when non-riparian property owners or sometimes called “back lot owners” have access to an abutting lake and begin to use the easement for the installation of boats and mooring of boats on what is designated as the riparian property.

“There is a common misconception that the property line goes into the water at the same angle as they do on the land,” he said. “That is not the case. They angle toward the middle of the lake, so you have to keep your dock in the area at the bottomland that you actually own.”

Similar to access to easements, platted subdivisions sometimes include public parks or outlots that abut a body of water and over time non-riparian owners begin to include activities that are not permitted by the plat’s dedication.

Private road ends or dead ends that stop at an inland lake generally cannot be used for dockage, the mooring of boats, or for sunbathing, picnicking or similar uses; gaining access to the water is generally the only permissible purpose. Docks are prohibited on public road ends. A single seasonal dock may be permitted by the local government that has jurisdiction, for the purpose of facilitating lake access, but not for mooring purposes.

“That is another common issue of litigation; people improperly using a road end and landowners filing a legal action suit to stop them,” Redick said.

Prescriptive easements are another issue that comes to the legal forefront when a non-riparian property owner trespasses over the riparian property to obtain access to the water, or to wrongfully install docks and moor boats. If this wrongful activity is left unchecked for 15 years or more, he said, back lot owners may legally claim the continued use of the area and obtain a prescriptive easement.

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