Riparian lots that grant keyhole access to others may create impacts that threaten health, safety, and welfare. Local governments have the legal basis to regulate such activities.

One of the rights of a riparian is to allow water access to non-riparian owners. Keyhole development, also known as “funnel” development, is the use of a riparian’s waterfront lot to provide water access to back-lot owners who normally would not have rights to the lake, except at public access sites. The access is usually for a larger number of users than is typical for a single family lakefront lot. These users could reside or temporarily stay in dwellings, tents, or travel trailers away from the waterfront or could park and launch a boat as at a public access site.

If unchecked, proliferation of keyhole developments could dramatically alter the surface use characteristics, appearance, and quality of a lake, as well as lead to conflicts with adjoining riparian’s due to over use of the keyhole lot. Possible impacts include user conflicts, excessive noise, damage to plants and animals, shoreline erosion, excess oil and gas entering the water, and even lower property values for adjacent waterfront lots.

Local governments do have the authority to regulate keyhole development to minimize negative impacts and protect inland lakes. Court cases in the late ’80s and early ’90s upheld the statutory authority of local governments to regulate keyhole development to protect public health, safety, and welfare. In Hess v West Bloomfield Township, 439 Mich 550 (1992) the Michigan Supreme Court concluded regulation of riparian rights, such as dockage of boats, is within the township’s zoning power. In Square Lake Hills Condominium Association v Bloomfield Township, 437 Mich 310 (1991), the Supreme Court concluded “… the delegated police power authority in the township ordinance act enables townships to regulate docking and launching boats for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of persons and property within their communities.”

Keyhole development regulations can be added to an existing zoning ordinance or adopted as a separate police power ordinance. Local governments should be careful not to prohibit keyhole developments entirely and to use proper justification when developing standards. There are both simple and complex approaches to dealing with keyhole development. A simple approach might be to establish a frontage-based minimum such as one dock per 100 feet of frontage, while a more complex approach is to use carrying capacity based restrictions.

While courts have upheld simple frontage-based standards (see Court of Appeals cases Yankee Springs Township v Fox (October 12, 2004; No. 249045), and Jones v Genoa Township (October 25, 2002; No. 231537), a scientific basis for such standards offers the best legal defense. Although published over 20 years ago, Regulating Keyhole Development: Carrying Capacity Analysis & Ordinances Providing Lake Access Regulations, offers a useful method for determining carrying capacity. Prepared by the Planning & Zoning Center, Inc. in 1994, the resource describes the carrying capacity analysis as a step-by-step process to establish a maximum number of boats for a particular lake that can be accommodated under normal peak conditions before water quality and recreational safety are seriously threatened. The resource also includes model ordinance language to regulate boat access. Hardcopies of the document can be ordered by contacting Planning & Zoning News at 517-886-0555 or wyckoff@pznews.net.

It is important to note that communities wishing to regulate keyhole access or amend existing standards should consult with their corporate attorney who is experienced in municipal and land use law.

Michigan State University Extension helps communities learn how to improve their social and economic appeal to create and retain jobs. Community leaders are given the tools they need to have a positive effect on their cities, villages, townships, counties – and the whole state.

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