Life on the Lakes: Dock laws

Michigan winters can wreak havoc on lake lovers as we patiently await the final ice melting on the lake because then, before we know it, it is time to get those docks in and start the summer season.

The ability to install, use and enjoy a dock is a perk of lakefront living. In Michigan, “riparian” landowners generally enjoy dock rights. Any land that includes or is bounded by a natural watercourse is defined as riparian, and the riparian owner enjoys the exclusive right to erect and maintain docks, and to permanently moor boats off the shores of their land.

However, in many circumstances platted lakefront subdivisions may have a “walk” or similar means of reaching the water’s edge. These walks are generally easements, although this depends on whether your particular plat was created before or after 1968. In most cases, language dedicating these walks for “the use” of others is consistent with a grant of an easement, not a grant of fee ownership. Therefore, whether a dock is permitted at the end of the path or not is dependent on the dedication language of the walk. Typically, we find these walks do not give rise to riparian rights, but only a right of way. However, plats; covenants, conditions and restrictions; and deed restrictions may contain specific language providing for a dock or a grant of riparian rights. These easements should not be confused with a “road end”, which does not create riparian rights on public property, nor does it create a riparian right to those homeowners in a private subdivision.

For riparian owners, the size, type and length of the dock you may install is regulated by a mixture of state law, case law and local ordinances. On “public” lakes, docks are often regulated through the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE.) Owners who seek to install a permanent dock should apply for a permit to do so through the Michigan “MiWaters” program.

Docks are less regulated for owners on public waters who only wish to install a temporary or seasonal dock. Seasonal docks and hoists do not require a permit if they are for private, non-commercial use by a landowner, do not unreasonably interfere with the use of the water by others, do not interfere with water flow, and are not placed in wetlands. There may still be local ordinances regulating dock placement and boat mooring on public lakes. On private lakes, one is much more likely to find ordinances regulating all aspects of dock placement, boat mooring, setback from principal structures and what to do if you seek to share a dock with your neighbor.

If you are unsure whether a permit is needed, you can check with your municipality and it should be able to answer any questions or direct you to the proper ordinance. In today’s modern world, most municipalities have their ordinances online for their residents.

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