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Is Your Neighbor’s Dock on Your Bottomlands?

July 6, 2012

Owners of waterfront property often forego a large yard in favor of being on the water. Many of the areas around Michigan’s inland lakes were platted in the early part of the last century, when zoning codes were much less restrictive or non-existent. Though likely adequate for the small seasonal cottages of the time, many of those lots are now occupied by large modern homes or cottages. The small dock that accommodated a rowboat is now flanked by a ski boat, pontoon and personal watercraft. Especially in times of low lake levels, things on the water become crowded and neighbor is pitted against neighbor. In some areas, there is a race to get docks installed in the spring, though bottomlands are not prorated on a first come first served basis.

Those who own land on an inland lake in Michigan also own the submerged lands or “bottomlands” adjacent to their property, to the middle of the lake. Among other rights, a riparian owner has the exclusive right to erect a dock and permanently moor boats on his or her riparian bottomlands. Encroaching onto your neighbor’s bottomlands is a trespass, much like the unauthorized entry into his yard. Though surveys are readily available to determine the extent of upland ownership, very few lakes have been the subject of a riparian bottomlands survey and in even fewer cases have those boundaries been established by a circuit court judge.

It is a simple matter to apportion bottomlands on a lake which is a perfect circle. Lines are drawn from the landward terminus points of each property line to a point in the center of the lake. Of course, few if any lakes are perfect circles. Michigan courts have developed allocation formulas with the goal of equitably apportioning riparian rights to the respective riparian owners, based on the amount of lake frontage (acreage is irrelevant) owned by each. Though one can start with the “eyeball” test, the services of a surveyor experienced in riparian bottomland surveys will likely be required.

People often purchase lakefront property for the peace and tranquility it offers, and may be inclined to ignore encroachments by a neighbor. Unfortunately, looking the other way could cause you to permanently lose your property by virtue of adverse possession or a prescriptive easement claim. At a minimum, if you believe that a neighbor is encroaching onto either your upland or bottomlands, you should consider whether a written license agreement may be appropriate to prevent such future claims.  Counsel experienced in this area can provide direction as to what may be appropriate in your individual circumstances.

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