Great Lakes Riparian Rights: Who Owns the Shore?

Michigan has thousands of miles of shoreline, on the Great Lakes and over 10,000 inland lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. However, limits on Great Lakes riparian rights can affect the way you use and develop your property, and which government you must approach before building a dock, wharf, or privacy fence on your property.

What are Lakeshore Owners' Riparian Rights?

If your property buts up against a natural body of water, then you have "riparian rights" related to its lakeshore or riverfront status. (Artificial canals or water access routes don't count). If your property includes riparian rights, you may:

  • Use the water for swimming, fishing, waterskiing, ice-skating, diving, etc.
  • Build a dock or wharf to improve your use of the water (after obtaining a permit from the State of Michigan)
  • Access navigable water
  • Use any part of the surface of the water as long as your use doesn't unreasonable interfere with your fellow property owners' use (i.e. boating or waterskiing over the whole lake or canoeing down the length of the river)

Generally, who has riparian rights is a question of land ownership. However, you may also have an "easement" to lake access or other riparian rights on property owned by someone else. For example, your lakefront cabin may have come with an easement or license to use the common boat launch controlled by the lake's property owners' association.

Great Lakes vs Inland Lakes: What's the Difference?

Your rights as a lakeshore property owner in the Great Lakes are slightly different than if you owned waterfront property on an inland lake or river. Riparian owners generally own the submerged land under the river or lake out to the center of the body of water. If you owned property on a perfectly circular inland lake, each piece of property would have a pie-wedge of submerged land extending out to the middle of the lake.

However, riparian rights work differently if your lakefront property abuts Lake Michigan, another Great Lake, or other federally "navigable" waters that can be travelled by vessels (including larger rivers). As a riparian owner on these bodies of water, you may not impair vessels' ability to navigate the waterway. Most importantly, your dock or wharf cannot extend into the navigable part of the waterway. Even shorter docks and structures must be permitted through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, rather than the State of Michigan.

In addition, the State of Michigan holds the title to the center of each Great Lake that touches it. Unlike with inland lakes, ownership of lakeshore property on the Great Lakes generally only extends to the ordinary high-water mark, vegetation line, or beach shoreline, sometimes called the "wet sand line." When long-term weather or climate change causes the level of the Great Lakes to rise or fall, this can cause lakeshore properties to get larger or smaller as the ordinary high-water line recedes or encroaches on that property. Whatever is regularly submerged at high tide belongs to the State.

Private Rights to Maintain Great Lakes Shoreline

Since 2003, Michigan has modified some laws relating to riparian owners' right to groom or maintain their beachfronts. Before 2003, landowners needed a permit from the State to remove unattractive vegetation or change the shape of the beach. There have been several changes, over the years. However, now, Great Lakes property owners maintaining sandy or rocky beaches no longer need a permit to:

  • Level sand
  • Mow or remove vegetation
  • Groom soil
  • Remove debris

However, the Army Corp of Engineers may still require a permit, for some activities that could affect navigability or shoreline preservation efforts.

Public Use of Beaches on Shoreline Properties on the Great Lakes

Since the State owns up to the high-water line, it holds these properties as a "public trust," giving the general public the right to use everything below that high point. A lakeshore property owner can't do anything to obstruct that right - such as building a fence or gate below the ordinary high-water line. This can create privacy and security concerns for some lakefront property owners.

Get Clarity on Great Lakes Riparian Rights

If you are seeking to secure your property, or if you have questions about maintenance or submerged land use, you should speak to a real estate attorney who knows the ins and outs of lakeshore law. At Lachman King, we have been representing developers and landowners on Lake Michigan for years. We have a heart for the Great Lakes and an understanding of the federal, state, and local laws that impact riparian rights of Great Lakes property owners. Our team will meet with you to explain your rights, and help you make the right call for developing and using your lakeshore property. Contact us today to set up a meeting.