Riparian Rights and Ownership in Michigan

Riparian Rights and Ownership in Michigan

Randall S. Schipper | Holland Attorney

There is something about water. There are those who own the waterfront, and the rest who want access to it. Unfortunately, they often clash. There are two distinct classes of waters in Michigan, Great Lakes and Inland Waters, and they have different riparian rules.

 An owner of land touching one of our Great Lakes owns only to the water’s edge and that ownership is subject to the “public trust” below the “ordinary high water mark” (basically the vegetation line). The public trust allows anyone to walk along the shore of the Great Lakes, below the ordinary high water mark, even though a private landowner holds title to the water’s edge. The state supreme court case that upheld the right to walk explained that fishing, hunting, and boating are also within the public trust so it is not hard to imagine a court allowing standing, sitting, lounging.

 Land touching a natural inland lake or stream has riparian rights. Also, land separated from the water by a right of way running along the shore has riparian rights. The owner of riparian land owns the bottomland to the “center” of the lake or thread of the river, subject to public rights of navigation and use. Riparian owners can install a dock, with required permits, to reach navigable water but cannot interfere with the rights of other riparian owners or the public. Riparian boundary lines do not run straight out from shore. Instead, riparian boundary lines run from center/thread of the water, as perpendicular as may be possible while ensuring an equitable allocation of the waterfront, to the land boundaries at the natural shore. If the water levels have receded, land that was bottomland would now be above water but it would be exposed bottomland subject to riparian boundaries, and not upland. There are often disputes over the location of riparian boundaries.

 Many “roads” run along or end at water and many public or private “parks” are on water. Whether they only to allow access for launching a boat, fishing, and swimming, or also allow lounging, sunbathing, or picnicking depends on the how the road or park was created and used, or long abused, over time.

 Disputes over water access and rights are quite common. Consulting experts well-versed in riparian law is essential to resolving such disputes.


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