Lakefront Property Ownership Myths & Facts in Northern Michigan

Myth 1: Public Access to Lakefront is Open to Al

Fact: Here it’s important to distinguish between what type of waterfront we are talking about:  an inland lake such as Lake Leelanau, Lime Lake, Little Traverse Lake, etc. or Lake Michigan.  

If you own property on an inland lake, unless there’s a public right-of-way, park, or easement, the public and other property owners can’t freely access lakefront or lake bottomlands. 

If we are talking about one of the Great Lakes–Lake Michigan or a Bay within Lake Michigan such as Northport Bay, Omena Bay, Suttons Bay, Grand Traverse Bay, etc.  this rule is different due to what is commonly called the “beachwalker” case.  In this case, the public generally has an easement for walking lakeward of the ordinary high water mark.  

Myth 2: Inland Lake Boundary Lines Extend to the Center of the Lake in the same direction as the side lot lines on dry land.

Fact: Inland Lake Underwater boundary lines of inland lakes typically extend in a wedge-like manner–think of how we typically cut a piece of pie–towards the lake’s center, not in line with land lot boundaries.

Myth 3: All Michigan Lakes Have Public Access, or a public road end that allows public access to the lake.

Fact: Not every lake in Michigan offers public access. While many lakes have access points and public roads, it’s not a universal rule. The idea that every lake must have an access point is a myth without legal backing.  For example, I was showing a client a house on Bright Road in Kasson Township, Leelanau County.  Bright Lake is nearby but there does not appear to be public access to it.  At least the neighbors told me there was no public access!  

Myth 4: Municipal Jurisdiction Stops at the Water's Edge

Fact: Again, it’s important to distinguish here whether we are talking about a Great Lake or an inland lake.  Municipal authority extends beyond the water’s edge for inland lakes. In cases of Great Lakes, jurisdiction can be uncertain, but for inland lakes, local municipalities often have full zoning and ordinance control.

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Myth 5: You do not need a permit to to add sand to your beach

Fact: Here the answer appears to be “it depends!”  First, it depends on “where you are placing the sand”  If you place sand lakeward or riverward of the ordinary high water mark without getting a permit, you’re in trouble.  If you place sand landward of the ordinary high water mark and it erodes or washes into the lake or river,  you will also likely be in violation of state or federal statutes. 

If you do want to seek a permit to add sand, you apply to different agencies depending on whether it’s an inland lake or a Great Lake.  If it’s an inland lake or river, you have to get a permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).  

If you want to seek a permit to add sand to a beach off Lake Michigan or one of its bays such as Suttons Bay, Northport Bay, Omena Bay, Grand Traverse Bay, etc., then you must apply to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (and sometimes also from the SNRE).  

One more caveat – In the case of an inland lake having a direct navigable passage to one of the Great Lakes, it is possible that a permit will have to be obtained from both the Army Corps of Engineers and the Michigan DNR & DEQ. 

Myth 6: Lake Access Easements Grant All Rights such as the right to install a dock, moor a boat, picnic, sunbathe, or generally relax on the waterfront.

Fact: Lake access easements rarely grant beneficiaries the rights to install docks, boat mooring, sunbathing, or picnicking. It’s important to fully understand the extent of your easement.  Where do you find what rights are afforded to you via that easement?  The deed!   

Myth 7: I don’t have to worry about every detail in a Buy/Sell Agreement (Purchase Agreement) because details can be worked out later.

Fact: Signed purchase/sales agreements for Michigan real estate are legally binding. Changes can’t be made without written consent from all involved parties.

Myth 8: Asking for Forgiveness rather than permission is the way to go when it comes to doing work on your lakefront property.

Fact: Ignoring permits for waterfront projects is a risky move. Violating laws or ordinances can lead to severe penalties and undoing the project at your expense.

Myth 9: On Inland Lakes, riparian land owners only own to the edge of the water so anchoring a boat overnight anywhere I want is not an issue.

Fact: Bottomlands adjacent to lots are typically owned by riparian property owners on inland lakes. While temporary anchoring is allowed for recreation, permanent or overnight anchoring requires the owner’s permission..

Myth 10: Since there is no local zoning ordinance regarding the length of a dock, I can extend it as far out into the water as I like.

Fact: Unreasonably long docks that can interfere with the navigability are subject to these two regulations (even if there is no local regulation):  

  1.  Michigan Marine Safety Act – The DNR has the ability to order a dock removed if it interferes with navigability
  2. Other waterfront land owners could make a civil case against you if your dock unreasonably interferes with their riparian rights. 

Myth 11: A land or parcel cannot be landlocked in Michigan

Fact: Landlocked or inaccessible parcels do exist, both legally and practically. Today, it would be rare that a governing authority would allow for the creation of a landlocked parcel, but land divisions made long ago could have created a landlocked parcel.  While some remedies like easements might be possible, not all situations can be resolved so it’s a “buyer-beware” type situation.  This sort of thing can be handled in the buy-sell agreement when purchasing what appears to be a landlocked parcel by installing a “contingency” in the offer making the offer contingent upon working out access to the landlocked parcel to the buyer’s satisfaction before closing.   

Stay informed and separate fact from fiction to enjoy your Northern Michigan waterfront property without misunderstandings. If you’re ever uncertain, consult experts in real estate and law to ensure a smooth experience.

Myth 12: Michigan Environmental regulations prevent you from grooming your waterfront beach in any way.

Fact:  As of July 2, 2012, the Michigan legislature passed 2012 PA 247 which exempts mowing and other limited shoreline management activities from Part 303, Wetlands Protection and Part 325, Great Lakes Submerged Lands, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, 1994 PA 451, as amended (NREPA).  Specifically, the following activities are allowed in the area of Great Lakes bottomlands lying below the ordinary high-water mark (OHWM) and above the water’s edge without a permit, subject to other laws of this state:

  1. In an area of unconsolidated material predominantly composed of sand, rock or pebbles, that is, an area where under normal circumstances, vegetation is non-existent, very sparse, or consists predominantly of plant species not typically adapted to wetland conditions:
  • Leveling of sand, which is the relocation of sand including the redistribution, grading, and spreading of sand that has been deposited through wind or wave action onto upland riparian property.  Alteration of the natural lakeshore contours, including excavation of basins, formation of new upland areas, and relocation of the natural shoreline location, is not exempt.
  • Removal of vegetation, which is hand-pulling or shallow tilling of very sparsely vegetated areas.  Alteration of the natural lakeshore contours, including excavation of basins, formation of new upland areas, and relocation of the natural shoreline location, is not exempt.
  • Grooming of sand or pebbles which is the removal of debris by raking or dragging, pushing, or pulling metal teeth without disturbance of or destruction to plant roots.  Debris is animal or fish carcasses, zebra mussel shells, dead vegetation, trash, and discarded materials of human made origin.  All collected debris shall be disposed of properly outside of any wetland.
  1. Mowing of vegetation which does not disturb soil or plant roots.

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