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Dock Permitted at Access Easement – No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Are there circumstances under which a lakefront easement granting only "access" rights can be used to erect a dock?  In Krantz v. Terrill, issued on September 20, 2012, the Michigan Court of Appeals answered that question "yes."  There are several interesting lessons from that case for owners of waterfront property:

  • A strip of land between a "front-lot" and the water itself does not defeat a front-lot owner's riparian rights.  Though Michigan law is very clear in that regard, it is troubling that the trial court held that the existence of that land defeated the front-lot owner's riparian rights.  That holding by the trial court was reversed by the Court of Appeals.
  • An express right to "access" does not include riparian rights, i.e. the right to erect a dock and moor boats.  Despite clear Michigan law on this point, the trial court held that access could include riparian rights.  This holding was also reversed by the Court of Appeals.
  • Use of an easement that exceeds its permitted scope gives rise to the possibility that those uses may thereafter continue as a matter of right.  I put this in the category of "no good deed goes unpunished."  To be a good neighbor, waterfront property owners frequently permit uses in excess of those expressly granted.  When property is sold, or circumstances otherwise change, there is inevitably a dispute about whether such uses were permissive (and therefore could not give rise to additional rights) or adverse.  In Kranz, the Court of Appeals upheld the trial court's finding that erecting a dock and mooring boats thereto were adverse.  The back-lot owners therefore acquired a prescriptive right to exercise riparian rights.  If you decide to be a good neighbor, it is absolutely critical that you memorialize the permission granted in a proper license agreement.
  • However clear you may think the law is,  do not take your opponent lightly, and be leery of "short-cuts."  Though I do not whether it affected the outcome, the riparian owner in Kranz agreed to let the trial court decide the case on a limited record, presumably to save money.
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About this Author

Eric Guerin, Litigation lawyer, Varnum
Partner

Real Estate and Riparian Rights

Much of Eric's practice concerns challenges faced by other riparian owners, including boundary disputes, quiet title actions, deed restrictions, adverse possession, land use and zoning matters, environmental issues, riparian rights, easements, road ends and access issues.  Though not unique to riparians, waterfront property owners encounter these issues more than most.  Eric's real estate practice also includes landlord/tenant law, construction lien and other construction law matters.

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