Who owns the land under the water? Can I install a dock in front of my house? Where can I moor my boat? What can I do if my neighbor’s dock encroaches onto my property? These questions all refer to a landowner’s riparian rights. Etymologically, “riparian land” abuts a river while “littoral land” abuts a lake, but “riparian” is the adjective almost always used to describe land that abuts a river or a lake.
In the case of Hess v West Bloomfield Twp, 439 Mich 550, 486 NW2d 628 (1992), the Michigan Supreme Court held that the Township Rural Zoning Act (TRZA) allows townships to regulate the docking of boats. In so holding, the Court found, “Riparian rights are derived from and are dependent on ownership of ‘land’ which abuts a natural body of water; thus, they constitute part of the property possessed by riparian landowners and become their property rights.” Hess at 562. Thus, an owner of real property may install docks and permanently anchor boats off the owner’s shore. The general public, however, may only use the surface of the water, e.g., for fishing, swimming, boating, and temporarily anchoring boats, but not for hunting or trapping.
Riparian rights extend to the middle of the river or lake, but there are three different methods of determining the lines. (A meander line shows the approximate boundary of a river or lake, but it does not restrict riparian rights.)
If the lake is basically round, then the riparian property lines go directly to the center of the lake, which yields pie-shaped wedges. This mechanism also applies to the ends of oblong lakes where a semicircle exists.
If the waterbody is a noncircular river, then a thread line or centerline follows the center of the river. If the waterbody is a noncircular lake, then a thread line or centerline is formed between two end points of the lake. Thus, in either case, the property line on the shore extends out at a right angle to the thread line of the waterway. The goal of this method is for each property owner to have a riparian share equal to his upland share. If drawing right angles does not achieve that goal, then another method can be used.
If shoreline recedes sufficiently, then property owners are entitled to a just proportion of the land as between the new shoreline and the historical shoreline. This prevents some property owners from losing riparian rights because of changing shoreline and/or property lines.
Keep in mind, however, that landowners do not have riparian rights in lands abutting the Great Lakes. The State of Michigan holds title to the bottomlands of the Great Lakes, which are held in trust for the public. This is why the public can walk along the beach between the water’s edge and the ordinary high water mark without trespassing.