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Who Owns the Land Under the Water in Michigan?

In many eastern states, including Michigan, if the land touches an inland lake, the owner of such land takes title to the center of the lake or stream bed.1 In other words, the landowner is deemed to own the bottomland under water to the center of that waterbody. Nevertheless, as discussed below, such ownership may be subject to the public’s right to use the surface of the water.

In contrast, the State of Michigan holds title to the beds of the Great Lakes.2 However, it has been long recognized in America that large bodies of “navigable” water are natural resources that belong to the public.3 Furthermore, it is said that the State holds such title as the trustee of public rights in the Great Lakes for fishing, hunting, and boating for commerce or pleasure.4 This is commonly known as the public trust doctrine.

The Supreme Court of Michigan decided a case where property owners on the shore of Lake Huron—who held title to the water’s edge—sought to prevent members of the public from walking along the shore in front their property. The property owners argued that such conduct constitutes a trespass. The court disagreed and stated that “walking along the lakeshore is inherent in the exercise of traditionally protected public rights.” It concluded that “our public trust doctrine permits pedestrian use of our Great Lakes, up to and including the land below the ordinary high water mark.”5

More information

Michigan Property Law, Easements and Access to the Water

Michigan Water Rights

Riparian Rights in Michigan

Ways to Access a Michigan Lake, River or Other Waterbody

How to Gain Access to Water Using an Easement in Michigan

How to Create an Easement in Michigan

References

1Hall v Wantz, 336 Mich. 112, 116 (1953); Collins v Gerhardt, 237 Mich. 38, 47 (1926).
2Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 682 (2005).
3Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 673 (2005).
4Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 679 (2005).
5Glass v. Goeckel, 473 Mich. 667, 674-75 (2005).