Lake Leelanau waterfront property owner stands on dock after learning about Michigan riparian rights.

Michigan Riparian Rights, Courtesies, and Politeness

Lakefront property owners, otherwise known as “riparians”, have a unique set of rights when it comes to their property and the water. These rights can sometimes be confusing to interpret, so we invite you to read this week’s blog in which LLLA Board Members Greg Vogt and Donald Baty explain the basics of Michigan riparian rights.

Understanding Riparian Rights

Courtesy and politeness matter when reviewing riparian property rights and interpretations thereof. What is interesting is where courtesy and politeness serve as key tools to quell potential or real disputes during our activities on or near Lake Leelanau. First, we will start with a few basics on the principal rights associated with riparian lands. 

Riparian Lands 

Property parcels in contact with a natural inland lake or stream are generally defined as riparian lands. Owners of such parcels commonly are referred to as riparians, and it is to these owners that certain rights exist—either by common law or state statutes. Land parcels contiguous to artificial (or man-made) waterways, such as irrigation drainage ditches or canals, typically are not riparian lands. Thus, confer no riparian rights to those parcel owners.

Riparians also have an ownership interest in a portion of the inland lake or stream where their parcel is located. In Michigan, the bottomlands are owned by riparian property owners. However, such ownership of bottomlands does not allow practices that affect the navigation by other riparian property owners or the general public. Common law rules can vary when extending the on-shore parcel boundaries into the lake depending on the shape of the lake (i.e., circular, serpentine, oblong, or irregular) and other factors.

Riparian owners do not have a property ownership right in the water itself. Instead, they have a right to use the water without causing impairment as it flows. More specifically, the water, fish, wildlife, and associated materials in the inland lakes and streams are the property of the people of Michigan. They are managed and regulated by the State.

Michigan Riparian Rights

Michigan riparians have exclusive use of their land parcel’s bank and shoreline to the water’s edge. As riparians, they hold general core rights as follows: 

  • Access to the navigable waters of a natural inland lake or stream where they own riparian land.
  • Installation of a dock anchored to or placed upon their riparian bottomland.
  • Anchorage of a boat on their bottomland and/or secure mooring to their dock.
  • Reasonable water usage from the lake or stream for general purposes, including swimming, lawn watering onto the owner’s riparian land, and domestic uses.
  • Reasonable usage of their shoreline and bottomlands as long as the use does not: a) unduly interfere with navigability or the rights of others, including other riparians, to reasonably use the lake or stream; or b) violate state or local law, including zoning ordinances.
  • To gain the right and title to natural accretions that may occur, such as the accumulation of sand and silt deposits on the riparian shoreline.

 The above rights may change due to state law revisions, court decisions, and changes/additions to local ordinances.

Other Rights Conferred with Limitations

Riparian rights are subject to reasonable governmental regulations. Examples might include limitations on the number of:

  1. Docks installations at a single riparian land parcel or;
  2. Properties that may gain access to a lake from a given access location. 

In addition, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) require permits before you can perform certain activities. Examples include:

  • The construction of a seawall or riprap wall.
  • Dredging or placing fill in a lake or stream.
  • Modifying the riparian shoreline, including shoreline restoration projects.

Riparians have the right to submit applications for project permits and the expectation of a reasonable response time to the application.

In addition to the above, riparian property owners have other limitations. For example, they cannot install a dock of unreasonable length that interferes with standard navigation by other lake users or at an angle that affects the rights of neighboring riparians—such as dock placement atop a neighbor’s bottomlands. They cannot anchor a raft, swim pads, or moor a boat (beyond a temporary timeframe) atop the bottomlands of another riparian owner or in a location that affects safe navigation on the lake.

Courtesy and Politeness on Lake Leelanau

State riparian rights provide the framework for allowances, actions, and what one may do or not do. Rules and interpretations can vary among jurisdictions. Disputes arise, and legal steps can be an avenue for resolution between parties. In the real world, other approaches can sometimes be more practical. Here are a few examples: 

  • Do not anchor your boat inside the dock area of a shoreline owner.
  • Stay more than 100 feet from and do not create excessive boat wake near riparian docks or the shoreline.
  • Use courtesy as to the noise level of music and conversations near shorelines.
  • When planning shoreline construction or restoration, whether or not an EGLE permit is required, it is a courtesy to inform your neighboring riparians.
  • Note that impairment due to alcohol or drugs, public nudity, urination off a boat, and littering from a boat are enforceable violations by the local Sheriff's Department.

Should you have any questions regarding Michigan riparian rights, please contact LLLA at [email protected].

This article provides a general summary of riparian rights granted by the State of Michigan, particularly for property owners on inland lakes such as Lake Leelanau and its tributaries. Similar but different rights are granted to riparian property owners on Lake Michigan.


Featured image courtesy of Mark Bugnaski Photography.

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