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Michigan Court of Appeals Rules Subdivision Property Owners Do Not Have Riparian Rights

Often, buyers purchase waterfront property assuming they have the right to access and use the water. If the neighbors in the community all agree and acquiesce to the use, the situation may continue for years without issue. However, when neighbor disputes arise, litigation may produce an outcome that nobody wants or predicts. The Michigan Court of Appeals decided last week that residents of a subdivision on Walled Lake all shared the same easement rights to use a park abutting the lake. However, the Court also decided that none of the owners had riparian rights to access and use the lake. To date, the dispute is ongoing.

In Va Park Subdivision Ass’n v Pascal Brown & Mega Mgmt Group, the “back lot” owners in the Virginia Park Subdivision sued the “front lot” owners. The subdivision consists of 26 lots, a street, and a park that abuts Walled Lake. The front lots are separated from Walled Lake by the park. The back lots are located west of the front lots. The back lots are separated from Walled Lake by both the front lots and the park. None of the back lots border the park or the lake. The plat dedication provides that “the street and park as shown on said plat are hereby dedicated to the use of lot owners only.”

In 2017, a dispute developed between the front-lot owners and back-lot owners over the use of the park and, specifically, rights to install docks and moor boats. The front-lot owners argued that they exclusively owned the riparian rights in the park and that the back-lot owners only had an easement permitting them to use the park for customary park purposes that did not include the right to install docks or moor watercraft.

The back-lot owners filed the lawsuit seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that all subdivision lot owners held equal and coextensive rights regarding the ownership and use of the park and (2) to quiet title in favor of all lot owners with a declaration that all lot owners held fee simple title to the park. Plaintiffs also asserted a trespass claim and a nuisance claim. The Oakland County Circuit Court found that the plat dedication established that all lot owners have an easement in the park. Further, none of the lot owners have riparian rights. The ruling was appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the Court of Appeals reasoned that a parcel is only considered “riparian land” if it “includes therein a part of or is bounded by a natural water course.” The Court found that the front-lot owners’ argument that their land was riparian since it abutted the public waterfront park was unpersuasive. While there is an exception for riparian land separated from the water by a road or walkway, that exception did not apply to the park in this case. Therefore, neither the front-lot owners or back-lot owners possessed riparian rights.

When interpreting the dedication of the park and the plat of the subdivision, the Court found that neither the front-lot or back-lot owners actually owned the park land. Further, the Court determined that all lot owners possessed the same rights to use the park under the existing easements. However, that did not resolve the dispute over which owners could install and maintain docks and otherwise use the lake. Since the trial court did not rule on that issue, the Court of Appeals remanded the case for further consideration.

As a result of this dispute between neighbors, the courts have ruled that none of the owners have riparian rights to the lake, none of the owners have any ownership of the park, and all the owners have the same rights to access the park under the existing easement. Moreover, it still had not been established whether the easement granted rights to use the lake, and if so, how much use would be permissible under the easement. In other words, after extensive litigation, it appears that the property owners are worse off than before the litigation began.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have experience in all land use matters, including easements and riparian rights. If you feel your riparian rights or rights under an easement are being infringed, please do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to speak with you.

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