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Boundary Lines on the Great Lakes

Summers in Michigan are second to none. In addition to being home to more than 10,000 inland lakes, we also boast the world-renowned Great Lakes. And many Michiganders own property bordering on one of those Great Lakes.

In our Easements, Access and Riparian Rights guide, we describe how the boundary lines of lake front property extend out to the submerged land under the water and can be determined by drawing a line from the boundary on the shore to the center of the body of water – or thread line, depending on the shape. However, this manner of determining riparian boundary lines only applies to lake front property on inland lakes.

Where property borders one of the Great Lakes, the owner of such land typically holds exclusive title only to the ordinary low-water mark of the lake. But such ownership is subject to the rights of the public to the high-water mark, which is an elevation line that is set, in part, by an official survey performed for each of the Great Lakes. The state is said to own the submerged land up to the high-water line, and holds title in trust for the public (referred to as the Public Trust Doctrine). When the high-water line recedes or rises, the theoretical boundary line changes, which is known as a meandering line. While the landowner’s deed ultimately dictates ownership, the fluctuating high-water line will define where the exclusivity of that ownership ends.

If there is a question of where lakefront boundary lines are located, the state has an option for property owners. In particular, under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act, a landowner of lakefront property on the Great Lakes can apply to the state for a certificate “suitable for recording the location of his or her lakeward boundary…” MCL 324.32511. This certificate can be used to facilitate the determination of boundary lines but will nevertheless be subject to the rights of the public to the ordinary high-water line.

In 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court, in Glass v. Goeckel, defined the ordinary high-water line as the point on the shore where “the presence and action of the water is so continuous as to leave a distinct mark either by erosion, destruction or terrestrial vegetation, or other easily recognized characteristic.” Thus, where boundary lines are in dispute for property along a Great Lake, more than a mere survey will be needed to determine where an owner’s exclusive rights give way to the public trust.

In addition, where a lakefront owner desires to build a dock or other permanent structure on one of the Great Lakes, he or she will need to comply with federal law. Specifically, the Great Lakes are subject to Section 10 of the federal Rivers and Harbors Act of 1899, 33 U.S.C. § 403, which in turn renders the placement of a dock or similar structure subject to the regulatory authority of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In other words, a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is prerequisite to the construction of a dock on the Great Lakes.

If you own property on one of our Great Lakes, or are considering purchasing such property, the attorneys at Dalton & Tomich can assist you in establishing and securing your interests and rights in the land.

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