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OLC Attorney Featured as Guest Columnist in July 2011 Woods-n-Water Magazine

For Immediate Release | Jun 24, 2011

OLC attorney Philip L. Ellison has been featured as a guest columnist in the July 2011 issue of the Woods-N-Water News magazine, Michigan's largest outdoor publication.

Titled as "Water, Water Everywhere... The basics on Michigan's water law, the article discusses the basics of riparian law in Michigan.

A copy of the article is reprinted below:
Water, Water Everywhere... The basics on Michigan's water law

As Memorial Day weekend has come and gone, thousands of lake-front property owners and certain back-lot owners installed their seasonal boat docks in lakes throughout Michigan’s 11,000 inland lakes and dozens of rivers (http://www.michigan.gov/dnr). Along the many lakes, rivers, and streams, many Michiganders have cottages and vacation homes. A few even enjoy year-round residency along a beautiful inland lake. Many childhood memories involve time spent “at the lake.”

The ability to privately enjoy a Michigan lake or river is due to a special set of legal rights known as riparian rights. Riparian rights provide the ability to go boating, fishing, water skiing, swimming, and many other water-related activities.

Michigan’s Riparian Law
Under Michigan’s common law, any land which includes or is bounded by a natural watercourse is defined as riparian. Technically speaking, property owners along a river or stream have “riparian rights” while lakeside property owners have “littoral rights.” While the law creates a distinction by name, most simply refer to these rights collectively as being riparian.

Being a riparian land owner provides numerous unique water rights. Riparian stream and river land owners have a right to the enjoyment of the natural flow of the stream. Lakefront property owners have the right to erect and maintain docks, anchor boats offshore, ingress and egress access to the water’s edge, and reasonable general purpose uses like swimming and fishing along their shoreline. Riparians also receive title to any new physical land created adjacent to their property that gradually became permanently exposed through erosion or changes in water level. Riparians also have legal title to the bottomlands and subaqueous land from the shoreline to the center of the inland lake. (But note that the Great Lakes and its jurisdictional lake bottoms are held by the State of Michigan via the public trust doctrine.)

In short, riparian rights are extremely valuable property rights. However, riparian land owners cannot sever riparian rights from their physical property as one could with minerals or trees. As such, subdivision developers have long created thousands of reserved properties for back-lot owners—those property owners who own non-shoreline property within a subdivision or common development area. Access to lakes and water are often provided to these back-lot owners by an easement or co-ownership.

Easements & Co-Ownership Also Provide Water Rights
While all the combinations of utilized easements and ownership schemes would be impossible to share in this article, it suffices to say that if a piece of shoreline property is dedicated by deed, covenant, or plat for the use of the subdivision, everyone in the subdivision gets to access the water. Generally, “right of access” provided by a deed, covenant, or plat minimally provides for ingress and egress to the water’s edge. Depending on the language used, these easements also include the right to swim, fish, and boat along with the right to a reasonable dock, to carry boats to the water, and to temporarily anchor boats within the easement area. It is important to note that the language of the dedication, as provided by the written instrument, generally controls. Many lawsuits have been fiercely litigated as to what is meant by certain words in a grantor’s dedication in light of an easement’s long-time use.

Find Your Legal Rights in Your Legal Documents
So, take a few moments to dig out your deed and a copy of your subdivision plat. Copies of all formal plats are also available online at www.dleg.state.mi.us/platmaps/. As Michigan’s lakes and waterways become more and more developed, the legal right to enjoy and access the water will become dependent on the rights provided within these legal documents and intent of subdivision developers, easement grantors, and platters from long ago.