Dingeman Dancer

Unreasonably Long Docks: How Long is Too Long?

AuthorW. Dane Carey

In all areas of society, there are always people who feel the need to push the limits of acceptable practices. Often times, to the detriment—and sometimes danger—of others. The same holds true for Michigan lakes and lakefront owners. Motor around any navigable lake in Michigan and you will undoubtedly see at least one instance of this phenomenon—whether it be an excessively long dock, a large raft anchored essentially in the middle of the lake, or the like. This article discuss some of the avenues available to riparian owners who want to combat such nuisances.

Is there a limit on the length of a dock or how far out into the lake a swim raft can be anchored? Yes and no.

The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act provides the following provision that seeks to address this question and gives the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and local law enforcement jurisdiction to enforce the relevant standard:

(1) If an anchored raft or other item or material, whether floating free or attached to the bottomland or a shoreline, presents a hazard to navigation, the department or a peace officer with jurisdiction over the body of water where the anchored raft or other item or material is located may relocate or remove it or may order its relocation or removal.

(2) The person who owns or who caused a navigational hazard that is relocated or removed under subsection (1) is liable to pay the actual and reasonable costs of relocation or removal. The department or the law enforcement agency with jurisdiction over the body of water where the navigational hazard was located may send written notice of the relocation or removal under subsection (1) and the associated costs to the person determined to own or to have caused the navigational hazard. If the owner or person who caused the navigational hazard fails to pay the costs within 30 days of the date the written notice is mailed, the costs may become a lien against the person's property.

MCL 324.80163. In short, if the DNR or local law enforcement deems the water-related structure to be a “hazard to navigation,” then the lakefront owner can be ordered to either relocate or remove it. Alternatively, the enforcement agency can just go ahead and move the dock or raft themselves, and then call on the owner to pay the cost of relocation or removal.

But what does it actually mean to say that a dock, boat hoist, or swim raft cannot present “a hazard to navigation.” This is undoubtedly a subjective evaluation that at the very least requires a case-by-case determination. Are there any definitive standards?

Some local municipalities (e.g., townships, cities, or villages) do have ordinance provisions that expressly regulate docks. These regulations limit the allowable length, width, and height of docks, and sometimes even implement certain “set-back requirements” that preclude installation of docks too close to property lines between neighbors. In a few limited instances, municipalities also have ordinances that regulate swim rafts and boat hoists. Although these municipal regulations are more definitive, they are much more selectively enforced and less reliable to protect the rights of riparian owners.

So, what if your local municipality does not have regulation to address such nuisances and the DNR chooses not to act regarding water structures that present a hazard to navigation? Is a lakefront owner simply free to install a dock as far out into the lake as he or she wishes, so long as it is located entirely on that person’s bottomlands? Assuming that no state or local enforcement action occurs, an aggrieved lakefront owner can still combat an unreasonably long dock or dangerous swim raft by taking legal action via a special concept in riparian law (grounded in common law), called the doctrine of reasonable use.

Pursuant to the doctrine of reasonable use, a fellow riparian owner (typically a lakefront neighbor) can sue another lakefront property owner if the offending party exercises his or her riparian rights—such as installing a very long dock—in a manner that unreasonably interferes with the reasonable lake usage rights of the other riparian owners on the lake. There is no definitive limit to how far a dock can extend or a swim raft can be located from shore, but generally speaking, such items cannot unduly interfere with navigability or the rights of other riparians to reasonably use their respective riparian properties. See, e.g., Thompson v. Enz, 379 Mich. 667 (1967); Pierce v. Riley, 81 Mich. App. 39 (1978); Three Lakes Ass’n v. Kessler, 91 Mich. App. 371 (1979); Square Lake Hills Condo. Ass’n v. Bloomfield Twp., 437 Mich. 310 (1991); West Michigan Dock & Market Corp. v. Lakeland Investments, 210 Mich. App. 505 (1995).

As with all litigation, however, this option is expensive and involves an uncertain outcome. Concerned riparian owners should consider all options to determine which works best for their particular scenario.

If you want to learn more about this topic, feel free to contact the experienced riparian (water) law attorneys at Dingeman & Dancer.