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If You Live in a Subdivision That Contains a Lake, You Likely Have Rights in That Water

When it comes to owning interest in land that includes or touchesan inland lake or stream, the law in Michigan is clear: you are considered a riparian landowner.

Generally speaking, a riparian landowner holds a bundle of rights, also known as riparian property rights. These rights include, but are not limited to, holding title to the bottomlands of the water to the middle of the lake or stream, the right to install a dock and permanently anchor boats off shore, and the right to use the water for swimming and fishing.

Q: But what about owning interest in a piece of property, where the only thing separating your lot from the water is land dedicated for public use, like a park, or a shoreline walkway or street that runs parallel to the water?  

In a nutshell, while actual contactwith the water is traditionally a pre-requisite for such land to be considered riparian, it is not necessarily required for riparian rights to exist.

Most recently, in 2000 Baum Family Trust v. Babel  and Thies v. Howland, the Supreme Court of Michigan reaffirmed the principle that owners of land abutting a right-of-way (like a walkway or road) are presumed to own the entire property to the water, but such land remains subject to others being able to use the right-or-way.

Nevertheless, the same could not be said when a parkis the only thing separating your property from the water. Although the Supreme Court of Michigan has not addressed the issue yet, the Court of Appeals of Michigan did. In Dobie v. Morrison, the Court of Appeals raised the issue but did not decide it, noting that, “while it is reasonable to presume that a walkway along a lake was placed merely as an easement to provide access to the lake and not with the intent to convey actual fee ownership of the land containing the walkway,” the “same is simply not true of the relatively large park in this case.”

On January 10, 2019, the Court of Appeals finally addressed the issue in Virginia Park Subdivision Association v. Brown, an unpublished opinion consolidating two cases. In that case, the front-lot owners argued that the rule with respect to roads and walkways “applies with equal force when an owner’s property is only separated from the water by a park that is subject to an easement.”

Unfortunately, the Court disagreed and stated that “there is no bright-line rule granting riparian rights to all owners of property that is separated from the shoreline by some form of easement.” Instead, courts must examine the “dedication language in the plat at issue” to determine the lot owners’ rights. In conclusion, if you live on or own a lot that is separated from the water by a park, you might in fact own that park subject to an easement. But regardless of whether there is a park, a walkway, or a road, at the end of the day, you might have some form of riparian rights. Ultimately, this will depend on the language in the plat dedication.

So, if you live in a subdivision that has an inland lake in it and would like to know your rights, or believe someone else is violating your rights, feel free to contact the experts at Dalton & Tomich PLC.

Thanks to Adel Nucho, law clerk and future attorney at Dalton & Tomich PLC for preparing this blog post.

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