The Public’s Right to Access Michigan’s Inland Lakes from Adjacent Roads

As families begin contemplating vacations up north or weekend getaways to one of Michigan's many inland lakes, water access points deserve careful consideration as they have become sources of lawsuits regarding the public's right to access the surface of the water from public roads adjacent to the water. Many of these lakes are bordered by subdivisions that were platted decades ago and depending on the language in the plat and the type of public roads, whether perpendicular or lateral to the lake, will determine whether the surface of the water can be accessed by the public by means of the platted streets. In Michigan, if a road has been dedicated to public use and essentially runs perpendicular to a body of water and the road ends at the body of water, the public may use the road to access the surface of the water.

What has become problematic for nearby property owners, however, is when public water access expands to include parties, picnics, trespassing on neighboring property, etc., which has resulted in some of these access points becoming more like a public park. The Michigan Court of Appeals in 2003 clarified the activities that are allowed at such water access points (where public roads provide access to a lake or other body of water). Absent a contrary intent that can be established by the dedication plat, the permissible activities are limited to accessing the water and the installation of a public dock because it assists in providing access to the water. Other activities, such as those normally conducted at public parks like games and sunbathing, are prohibited, including the anchoring of boats and other watercraft on a nontemporary basis. An additional water access issue relative to roads involves public roads that encircle all or a part of lake with the property owners' homes on the opposite side of the road from the lake. At issue in certain locales is the water access rights that the lateral public road may serve to provide to the public.

The road severs the portion of the lot adjacent to the water from the lot across the road, commonly with a dwelling on it. In 2009, the Michigan Supreme Court determined that the dedication of the public road does not serve to sever the property owner from their riparian rights and thus, the public is not granted access to the water over the portion of the lots on the waterfront. The public can access the surface of the water via a public road end, that is usually laid out perpendicular to the water and a public dock may be installed to aid the public's access to the water. Other recreational activities are prohibited unless the dedicated plat indicates otherwise. The public cannot access the water via an adjacent lateral road because the dedication of the road to the public does not include the riparian rights associated with the lots separated from the water by the lateral road. So if you are visiting a lake or if you are a property owner adjacent to a lake with public roads as described above, this information may be useful to aid you in determining the legal rights the public has to access the surface of the water, also being mindful of trespassing violations on private property and what may constitute violations of state law to access the water. Dan A. Penning