Township Authority to Regulate Great Lakes Bottomlands

State Bar of Michigan Real Property Law Section e-Newsletter

Michigan townships have authority to regulate inland lakes via riparian rights that attach to the adjoining water. Township of Yankee Springs v. Fox, 264 Mich App 604, 606 (2004). Unlike inland lakes, however, the State of Michigan holds title to the center of each Great Lake bordering Michigan, and riparian owners on the Great Lakes only own to the ordinary high-water mark. Hilt v. Weber, 252 Mich 198 (1930); Peterman v. Department of Natural Resources, 446 Mich 177 (1994). Given that exclusive riparian ownership ends at the ordinary high-water mark, it logically follows that a township’s authority to regulate ends at this point.

In People v. Bouchard, 82 Mich 156, 158-60 (1890), the Court determined that the boundaries of townships bordering the Great Lakes do not extend into the water, but instead, end at the shoreline. In so holding, the Court rejected the idea that a township has authority to regulate beyond the shoreline of the Great Lakes based on the fact that riparian owners have certain rights that extend into the water.

Given that township boundaries end at the shoreline, and because exclusive riparian ownership only extends to the ordinary high-water mark, townships ostensibly lack authority to regulate the bottomlands of the Great Lakes. As a result, townships are likely unable to justifiably restrict numerous activities—e.g., limiting the number of boats moored on a shoreline based on amount of frontage owned to preclude so-called funneling or keyholing—which they might otherwise be inclined to do.

Takeaway: Townships’ authority to regulate extends only within their legal boundaries, which in the case of the Great Lakes, ends at the ordinary high-water mark. Attorneys should keep this in mind when advising lakefront owners on the Great Lakes.

Original publication located atState Bar of Michigan Real Property Law Section
By W. Dane Carey