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Riparian Rights In Michigan

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The State of Michigan defines riparian rights as “those rights which are associated with the ownership of the bank or shore of an inland lake or stream.” This resource was created to provide riparian property owners and members of the general public an outline of essential information pertaining to those riparian legal rights and limitations associated with owning stream bank or inland lake shoreline constituted private property in Michigan. This publication should be construed and used only as a general reference. Riparian rights are subject to frequent revision by court rulings and various ordinances that may be enacted by local governments. Please consult with a qualified riparian rights attorney for expert counsel regarding specific issues or cases.

Basic Riparian Rights in Michigan

Even though riparian property rights continue to evolve due to legislative revision of state law, various court decisions and enactment of local ordinances, riparian property owners continue to enjoy the following basic rights:

  • Access to the water of an inland lake or stream upon which they own riparian property
  • Installation of a dock anchored to their riparian bottom land
  • Anchorage of a boat on their bottom land and/or secure mooring to their dock
  • Reasonable use of water from the lake or stream for strictly domestic purposes
  • The right of accretions: meaning ownership of the gradual accumulation of sand, silt or organic matter on riparian owned shorelines

Limitations of Riparian Rights

Michigan courts have repeatedly ruled that riparian rights are correlative rights whose exercise must be reasonable at all times and may not encroach or infringe upon the use of the surface of the lake or stream by other riparian property owners or members of the general public. In addition, there are certain activities pertaining to inland lakes and streams that are regulated by the NREPA of 1994, Public Act 451, Part 301, and as such, require the issuance of a permit from the Michigan DEQ. These limitations of riparian rights include but are not necessarily limited to the following activities:

Riparian property owners shall not:

  • Anchor a raft or moor a boat on or above the bottom lands of another riparian owner
  • Install a dock of an unreasonable length and/or at an angle that interferes with or limits the navigability of the water body or the riparian rights of neighboring property owners
  • Dedicate the surface or any portion thereof of a lake or stream without a permit from the DEQ
  • Transfer riparian rights to another person
  • Restrict the use of the surface of a lake or stream by members of the public
  • Build a seawall or jetty closer to the water’s edge than at the ordinary high-water mark
  • Construct a seawall without a DEQ permit
  • Dredge or place fill in a like or stream without a permit from the DEQ
  • Alter or modify their riparian shoreline or remove aquatic plants without a DEQ permit

However, while many areas of water law in Michigan are well established by the courts, the riparian rights of lakefront property owners living on an artificial lakes throughout Michigan are uncertain as of August 2015 due to two recent decisions of the Michigan Court of Appeals. Within the last five years, the Court of Appeals held that artificial lakes in Michigan do not have riparian rights in Persell v. Wertz, 287 Mich App 576 (2010) and Holton v. Ward, 303 Mich App 718 (2014).

Public Rights on Michigan Waters

Michigan riparian property owners who own land on navigable inland lakes or streams own the respective bottom lands covered by water, however, they do not own the water or the fish that swim within those waters. If public access to navigable water has been established by the state or a local government entity such as the county or township, public users enjoy the same recreational boating and/or fishing rights and privileges as riparian property owners.

Limitations of Public Rights

The public right to use navigable lakes and streams includes the right of incidental use of riparian owned bottom lands, but that right does not extend to the uplands of riparian property owners while in such waters, or in entering or departing waters from those privately owned uplands.

In addition, the 1953 Michigan Supreme Court case Hill v. Wantz reaffirmed that “a riparian property owners rights are limited by the public right to navigation, but this does not include the right to anchor indefinitely off the riparian’s shoreline.”

In the 2005 “beach walker” case , the Supreme Court ruled that members of the public have a right to walk along privately owned Great Lakes beaches as long as they do not cross the “ordinary high-water mark.” This case does not pertain to Michigan’s inland lakes and streams or to inland lakes with an immediate hydrologic connection with one of the Great Lakes. In most cases, public beach walking on inland lake riparian owned shorelines constitutes trespassing.

Riparian Ownership of Bottomlands

The State of Michigan defines bottom lands as the land area of an inland lake or stream which lies below the ordinary high-water mark which may or may not be covered by water.” The courts have established and reaffirmed the ownership of the bottom lands to the middle thread of an inland lake or stream by the adjacent riparian property owner in several cases dating back to 1860. The courts have also established and reaffirmed, however, that riparian ownership of bottom lands does not “injure or abridge” the right of navigation by other riparian property owners and/or the general public.

Inland Lake Public Road End Use

Michigan Public Act 56 of 2012 prohibits the use of public road ends for construction, installation, maintenance, or use of boat hoists or boat anchorage devices, mooring or docking of a vessel between 12 midnight and sunrise or any activity that obstructs ingress to or egress from the inland lake or stream. A public road end shall not be used for construction or use of a dock or wharf other than a single permanent or seasonal public dock or wharf that is owned by the local unit of government and authorized by the Department of Environmental Quality.

For More Information on Riparian Rights in Michigan

To learn more about riparian rights in Michigan, visit the MLSA “An Attorney Writes” page where a large volume of articles regarding riparian rights and water law issues written by attorney Clifford H. Bloom can be viewed HERE. You may also view the most recent articles with your MLSA membership HERE.