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A “Magnificently Convoluted and Contentious” Plat re: Waterfront Property

Plats continue to be a source of frustration, uncertainty and expense for owners of waterfront property. In Sims Township v. Arenac County Drain Commissioner, the Michigan Court of Appeals described a "magnificently convoluted and contentious situation" which involved 655 parties. Sims Township filed the lawsuit in 2001 against all those who owned land in the Wallace Orr Park subdivision, in an attempt to settle the various disputes among the owners. Those issues included the following:

  • The legal status and use of a beach that was described on the plat map but was not the subject of either a private or public dedication. The court held that the description of the area as a beach on the plat map was the functional equivalent of a private dedication.

  • The Court held that the existence of the beach between the front tier lots and the shoreline did not deprive those lots of riparian rights.

  • The Court reasoned that portions of dedicated areas (or the beach) could be vacated under the Land Division Act, to the extent of existing encroachments, such as seawalls or permanent structures.

  • Though dedications create private rights in all those who purchase land in a plat, curiously, the court held that certain plat owners lacked standing to challenge platted areas that were not adjacent to land they owned.

The Sims Township decision is not newsworthy in the sense that it created new law. In fact, because it is an unpublished decision it has no precedential effect. Nonetheless, the case provides cautionary lessons to those who may be considering the purchase of waterfront property.

Because waterfront property has always been coveted, areas around lakes are frequently platted, often in the early part of the last century. Dedicated areas, and even areas described but not dedicated in the plat, may give rise to both public and private rights that are at odds with a purchaser's expectations. These platted areas will likely not be disclosed by walking the property, an appraisal or even a survey. If property is platted there is no substitute for reviewing the plat map and understanding the nature of any private or public rights that might interfere with your expectations. 

Last but not least, the Sims Township case involved over 650 parties, none of whom decided to file a lawsuit, and lasted 14 years. That should get your attention.

© 2019 Varnum LLP

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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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