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Michigan Court Reviews 19th Century Surveying Practice to Decide a 21st Century Lakefront Property Dispute

Michigan courts once again shines the spotlight on the significance of a plat in lakefront property disputes. The case of Saunders v. Rhodes (decided June 18, 2020) started with a dispute between two property owners over a strip of land abutting Chippewa Lake, in Mecosta County, Michigan.


 

The Defendants’ Position:

The defendants argued that they own the disputed strip because (1) the plat uses metes-and-bounds description that does not incorporate the shoreline, (2) the plaintiffs’ lot (Lot 1) has a straight-line boundary, and (3) the plat does not expressly state that the lots near the shoreline are bounded by a meander line or that such lots extend to the water’s edge.

 

 

The defendants also argued that the disputed parcel is actually included in the legal description of their parcel (Parcel B).

 

 

The Plaintiffs’ Position:

The plaintiffs, on the other hand, argued that the straight line depicted on the plat is merely the meander line of Chippewa Lake, not the boundary line of Lot 1. Also, they added, the plat does not contain any language reserving any right to use the land between the line depicted on the plat and the shoreline. Accordingly, the plaintiffs asserted that the shoreline is the actual boundary of Lot 1 because no other intention was expressed in the plat.

The Plat Statutes in Effect When the Subject Plat Was Recorded

The Court first addressed the meaning of Lot 1’s straight line depicted in the plat, which runs alongside the lake and described by metes and bounds. In doing so, the Court looked to the statutes regarding plats that were in effect “at the time that the plat was recorded.”

Pickerel Point was platted in 1927. Thus, the Court looked to the governing statutes at that time (which was a 1915 law amended in 1925) and found that the plat language and use of metes and bounds complied with the law. And that the statute did not require a statement that the lot extends to the shoreline (like other more recent statutes).

The Court Looking to the General Practice of Surveyors and the Original Plattors’ Intent

Significantly, the Court looked to cases from the late 19th century and early 20th century which revealed that the general practice for surveyors, around the time the Pickerel Point plat was recorded, was to draw a meander line that roughly approximated the shoreline. The surveyors did that with the understanding that lakefront lots were actually bounded by the body of water rather than the line drawn on the plat.

Finally, the Court focused on the intent of the individuals that platted Pickerel Point. The Court found that, because the original plattors “did not express an intention to reserve any portion of land between Lot 1 and the water, the natural boundary of Chippewa Lake controls and Lot 1 as platted extends to the lake.”

Court of Appeals Agrees with the Trial Court

Among other things, after reviewing the plat statutes, intent of the plattors and plat language, and the general practice of surveyors at the time, the Michigan Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s order quieting title to the disputed strip of lakefront property in favor of plaintiffs (Lot 1).

This case not only reiterates the importance of the intent of the original plattors, but also the significance of the general practice and the governing law when the subject property’s plat was recorded.

 

 

Notice from Dalton & Tomich, PLC: This case summary is for informational use only; it is not intended as legal advice.

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