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Michigan Lakefront Property Owners – An Overview of Your "Riparian Rights"

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Michael A. Cassar
June 2018 Finance Real Estate & Bankruptcy Law News
June 12, 2018

While Minnesota is well known as the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," the State of Michigan could also claim that title as it contains more than 11,000 inland lakes. The Michigan Economic Development Corporation notes that anyone living in Michigan is never more than six miles away from a lake or stream.

As such, thousands of Michiganders own property adjacent to the shore of a lake or other body of water. Individuals who own such property are called riparian owners, and they have unique property rights under Michigan law, called riparian rights.1 

 1 "Land which includes or abuts a river is defined as riparian, while land which includes or abuts a lake is defined as littoral." Thies v Howland, 424 Mich 282, 288 n 2 (1985). However, Michigan courts often refer to property rights of people owning land abutting either a lake or a river as "riparian rights." See Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667, 672 n 1 (2005).

Of course, riparian owners can use the surface of the water for boating, swimming, fishing, and other similar activities. They also have the right to build and maintain docks on the land extending out into the water, as well as permanently anchor boats off shore.

Inland Lakes and Property Lines

Riparian owners on inland lakes own the bottomlands of the body of water, but the property lines do not extend straight into the lake as one might think. Instead, Michigan law handles this issue in two different ways, depending on the shape of the lake. If the lake is circular, the property lines extend from the shoreline into the lake and converge at the exact middle point of the lake. If the lake is oblong-shaped, the method of determining property lines on the bottomlands is much more complicated – an experienced surveyor is often needed. Surveyors are familiar with the proper division of lake bottomlands to figure out exactly where the property lines lie. Confusion regarding this principle often leads to conflicts between neighbors when one builds a dock on the bottomlands actually owned by another – this constitutes trespassing.

Riparian Owners and Beach Walkers

On inland lakes, riparian land owners have the right to exclude others from traversing across their shoreline. It is important to note that this is not the case with shorelines of the Great Lakes. In 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court in Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667 (2005) held that Great Lakes riparian owners cannot exclude the public from walking along the lakeshore. As such, Great Lakes beach walkers can traverse the lakeshore without the permission of private property owners so long as they do not walk above the ordinary high water mark.

Reasonable Use of the Water Body

While riparian owners have extensive rights regarding use of the water body adjacent to their property, Michigan law prevents them from interfering with the "reasonable use" of the waters by other riparian owners. In West Mich Dock & Mkt Corp v Lakeland Investments, 210 Mich App 505, 513 (1995), the court set forth a three-pronged test to evaluate "reasonable use":

  • First, attention should be given to the size, character and natural state of the water course. 
  • Second, consideration should be given the type and purpose of the uses proposed and their effect on the water course.
  • Third, the court should balance the benefit that would inure to the proposed user with the injury to other riparian owners.

Thus, riparian owners need to keep in mind that their use of the water is subject to the above reasonable use test. While riparian owners have the right to use the surface of the water body, they cannot otherwise restrict the use of water by other riparian owners. For example, while riparian owners have the right to build a dock on their bottomlands, the dock cannot be unreasonably long. Also, riparian owners cannot restrict the public's right to use the water to boat, fish, swim, and otherwise use the surface of the water body.

Please contact Mike Cassar at 517.371.8110 or at mcassar@fosterswift.com if you have questions regarding your lakefront property rights and property disputes.