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Michigan Riparian Rights

On Behalf of | Jun 23, 2021 | Firm News

Summers in Michigan are tough to beat.  Many Michiganders escape to a lake house for the opportunity to sit on the beach, wade in the water, and fish off the dock.  But not all properties close to the lake are created equal.  The Osceola County Circuit Court made this clear in the case of Steven R. Taylor Living Trust v. Anne Weeda, et al as it relates to backlot owner’s rights on inland lakes.

In this case, our clients, and Defendants in the case, are owners of lakefront property (a/k/a riparian or litoral property owners) in the Strawberry Lake Owner’s Association.  On the south end of Defendants’ property is an easement that provides for “ingress, egress, and lake access” to backlot owners in the Association.  Plaintiff is a backlot owner in the Association of two parcels of property.

A dispute arose between Plaintiff and Defendants regarding Plaintiff’s desired use of the easement and his activities on Strawberry Lake.  Specifically, Plaintiff utilized the easement to access Strawberry Lake and then swim, wade, and fish in shallow waters in front of Defendants’ property.  Plaintiff also intended make use of Defendants’ beach, moor a boat close to the waters’ edge, and otherwise take advantage of Defendants’ riparian rights.  Plaintiff filed suit claiming he could freely use easement and any part of the lake as a member of the Association.

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the case on the basis that Plaintiff’s theory was completely in conflict with Michigan law.  Defendants argued that the easement gave Plaintiff, as a backlot owner, the right only to bring a boat into lake and then travel to the navigable waters.  Plaintiff could not make use of the bottomlands of Defendants’ property by swimming, wading, and fishing on Defendants’ riparian land.  Moreover, Plaintiff could not expand the scope of the easement to fit his intended use.  Simply, if Plaintiff wanted to spend the day on the beach and wade in and out of the water, he should have purchased lakefront property.

The Court agreed with Defendants, granted their motion, and dismissed Plaintiff’s case.  The Court ruled that Michigan law limits the way in which backlot owners may utilize inland lakes because they do not enjoy riparian rights like lakefront owners.  In other words, Plaintiff’s desire to use the easement to access the lake and spend the day boating and swimming on the bottomland of Defendants’ property was rejected.  The Court agreed with Defendants that while the easement gives Plaintiff the right to access the lake, he must engage in his recreational activities in a manner that does not infringe on Defendants’ rights as lakefront owners.  Additionally, the Court ruled that Plaintiff was not allowed to park his vehicle and trailer on the easement during the time he was on the lake.  The easement is not a parking lot and its use is strictly limited to “ingress, egress, and lake access” to Strawberry Lake.

What does this mean?  If you have visions of sitting in a comfy chair on a beach and sinking your feet into an inland lake, you should probably purchase lakefront property (or make friends with someone with lakefront property!).  Backlot owners generally cannot squat on the beach of a lakefront owner, enjoy the benefits of easy lake access, and then return to their backlot after a day of fun in the sun.  Michigan law reserves these rights for riparian owners.  Also, easements related to access on inland lake are strictly interpreted.

Feel free to contact Kuiper Kraemer for questions related to real estate and water rights.  We are happy to help!

Author: Nicholas V. Dondzila, [email protected]