Court Rules on Ownership of Beachfront Property

Get Your Feet Wet: Court Rules on Ownership of Beachfront Property

If you want to walk the beach of a navigable public lake in Michigan, get your feet wet. That was the message of a recent Michigan Court of Appeals decision. In Glass v Goeckel, No. 242641 (Mich Ct App May 13, 2004), a resident sued her neighbor for the right to walk on and use the beach in front of the neighbor's lakefront home on Lake Huron. She argued that, as a member of the public, she had the right to use the portion of her neighbor's private property which was below the ordinary high-water mark (which could leave hundreds of feet of public beach there or just a few depending upon changing water levels). The court disagreed. Following a line of Michigan case law in existence since 1930, the court declined to define a lakefront property owner's rights by the high-water mark. Instead, it reasoned that the lake gives and the lake takes away: "since the [lakefront property owner] may lose soil by the action of the water he should have the benefit of any land gained by the same action." However, the court confirmed that the soil belongs to the lakefront property owner subject to the title of the State of Michigan to lands under navigable waters, no matter how shallow the waters. While owners of lakefront property on navigable public lakes may keep the public off their dry beach land, they may not similarly control the water. Thus the court confirmed what our grandfathers have always believed: if you are going for a long walk on the beach, walk in the water. Leslee M. Lewis focuses on real estate, corporate law, finance, and estate planning as a member in Dickinson Wright’s Grand Rapids office. She can be reached at 616-336-1042 or