Life on the Lakes: Local ordinance may help fill in the gaps

In these articles, we certainly spend time discussing regulations and statutes. Droll, I know, but as counselors, regulations set the limits for us between actions that are acceptable, and actions that are actionable.

When discussing the topic of inland lakes in Michigan, one encounters significant regulatory overlap. Take for example, a heavily trafficked inland lake in Oakland County, Michigan with Department of Natural Resources (DNR) (public) launch sites. Our example lake (regardless of location) is subject to any provision of Part 301, “Inland Lakes and Streams”, as contained in the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA.)

One might consider inland lakes and streams to be the regulatory “floor”, as in, inland lakes and streams sets the lowest acceptable limit by the controlling state authority. Within inland lakes and streams are the base regulations that enable and empower the formation of lake boards, watershed councils and watershed alliances. Additionally, inland lakes and streams contains the base regulations to preserve the very existence of the inland lake, such as dam safety regulations, determination of normal water levels for the lake, dredging and marina permitting, and defining the major and minor permit categories.

The next “level” of regulation would be DNR regulations over how users interact with each other on the inland lake. These regulations contain watercraft registration and operation laws, as well as navigational requirements. Most of the DNR regulations are contained in Part 801 (Safety) of NREPA, but some of the general inland lake use rules are enacted by the DNR by its law enforcement division from authority conferred to the DNR by NREPA. The majority of inland lake DNR regulations are statewide, but the “local controls” we have discussed in past articles are issued on a lake-by-lake basis.

As we continue on to more narrowly-tailored regulations, we arrive at regulations set at the municipal/township level. As an example, last month we referenced Highland Township’s “Lake Ordinance 470.” These municipal regulations often act as zoning ordinance extensions, in that they control the size, shape and layout of dwelling houses and accessory structures (docks, in structure placement could alleviate significant tensions between neighboring property owners.

Onto the most narrowly tailored regulations, we have those regulations that often arise as an incident to property ownership in a certain geographic area. These regulations include deed restrictions, homeowners’ associations (HOA) and lake improvement associations. These regulations often pertain to private docking establishments (neighborhood beaches), and general lake use rules on smaller inland lakes, wherein the entire lake is under the jurisdictional control of one HOA. Going back to our example lake in Oakland County, every regulation we just discussed could be applicable to the use of said lake. Another layer of complication can arise from one waterbody that lies in multiple townships, and each township could have independent (and conflicting) lake ordinances for its portion of the waterbody.

If you are wondering where to look, or how to wade thru this regulatory network, we are here to help.