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Public Roads and Lake Access

May 9, 2013

All roads lead somewhere, but what type of public roads provide access to a lake? The first consideration is whether the road terminates near the shore of a lake, or whether it is a road that runs parallel to the lakeshore. Unfortunately, members of the public and even local municipalities and law enforcement agencies often fail to recognize this distinction.

Roads that run perpendicular to a lake and terminate at or near the shore, i.e. “road ends,” frequently provide limited public access. Though Michigan case law has long provided that road ends provide only access, that did not discourage people from exercising riparian rights at many road ends, including the installation of docks and overnight mooring of boats. In March of 2012, Public Act 56 was passed, amending Part 301 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. You can view the Act here. Among other things, Public Act 56 makes it a crime to install a private dock without a permit or to moor boats to a road end dock overnight. More information on Public Act 56 can be found here. Though the law is clear, enforcement throughout the State has been spotty, and at least some local law enforcement agencies appear destined to avoid enforcement.

Though road ends provide limited public access, roads in Michigan that run parallel to a lakeshore do not. Many of our lakes have scenic roads that follow the perimeter of lake, with little land between the road and the water. The “front-tier” lots and cottages are separated from the lake by only the road. Members of the public sometimes mistakenly believe that, because they can travel on the road, they can also walk to the lake from those roads. In 2010 the Michigan Supreme Court reiterated that the existence of a parallel road separating a front-tier lot from a lake does not defeat that lot owner’s riparian rights. Similarly, though members of the public can travel within the confines of the road, they may not use it to gain access to the lake.

As private docks are increasingly removed from public road ends, those who own those docks may be looking for new places to install them, including strips of land between a parallel road and the lakeshore. If riparian owners are not diligent, with the passage of time those docks could become permanent. You can learn more about that risk on our boundary dispute resource page.

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