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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2003

Showdowns on shorelines

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
The proliferation of watercraft and the demand for dock space have aggravated disputes among property owners at inland lakes in southeast Michigan. The proliferation of watercraft and the demand for dock space have aggravated disputes among property owners at inland lakes in southeast Michigan.
KEESE / BLADE Enlarge

You've settled into your just-acquired lake cabin, and you're excited. Even though it's not waterfront, you have a beautiful view of walleye darting out of the lake and fishermen in canoes floating by in the mornings. Plus, you feel good because you saved a bundle by not buying lakefront.

But then the trouble starts.

Initially, it's the cool stares of your lakefront neighbors as you and the kids picnic on the small strip of shoreline the real estate agent said was reserved for you and other owners of back-lot properties. But the real wake-up call comes when you're threatened with a lawsuit after erecting a dock for your new Jet Ski.

With the arrival of summer, dozens - and possibly hundreds - of such disputes will break out on inland lakes in Michigan and elsewhere that have become increasingly popular with getaway-seeking people from northwest Ohio and other areas.

Lawyers and real-estate agents say such dream-busting stories demonstrate why purchasers considering lake-access properties can't just take the word of sales agents and property owners about water rights but must read the fine print of deeds or hire attorneys well versed in the subject.

“There is no question that lake access or the lack thereof results in a lot heartaches and disappointments for people,” said Gene Welper, an attorney in Hillsdale, Mich., who has handled a number of such disputes.

“It happens with some degree of frequency.”

Such disputes are less common in resort areas along Lake Erie that are popular with northwest Ohio residents, according to Cindy Bolte, a real estate agent in Port Clinton. One reason: Erection of docks, a common sore point in many disputes on the inland lakes of Michigan, is risky in the often rough water of the Great Lakes. Even lakefront owners rent space in marinas in protected harbors, she noted.

The dynamics of rising property values are contributing to fights over water rights in Michigan, say lawyers and real estate agents. A person who has laid out a small fortune for prime lakefront is less likely to overlook trespassing by back-lot owners using an adjoining easement.

Meanwhile, prospective buyers who have been priced out of the waterfront market are more likely to consider lake access. Even at half the price of lake frontage, the costs of these back-lot homes have increased, as have the expectations of buyers.

The informal arrangements about erections of docks at the ends of alley-like easement areas and public rights of way that have prevailed for generations may not survive a prosperous era when every cottage has not only a power boat but also a pair of personal watercraft and, sometimes, a pontoon boat and even a sailboat, say lawyers and real estate agents.

When disputes develop, they can be long and costly.

“They're like mini-range wars,” said one leading lake property attorney.

Milton Rasmussen, who is now in his 80s, has been to court twice over his right to put up a dock at the end of an easement for tenants of his back-lot rental units on popular Devils Lake in Manitou Beach, Mich.

The most recent time was in the late 1990s. But more than a decade earlier, owners of properties abutting the easement went all the way to the Michigan Court of Appeals in an attempt to get rid of the dock.

The courts ruled for Mr. Rasmussen, partly because the dock had been in place for 25 summers without objections.

Still, he isn't happy with restrictions imposed by the court. “It wasn't really worthwhile and I spent tons of money,” he said in a telephone interview.

William Walker, an Adrian lawyer who represented Mr. Rasmussen, said back-lot owners have won a number of cases in Lenawee County challenging their right to erect docks on easements.

But that isn't the norm across Michigan, according to attorneys and real estate agents interviewed. Such deeded easements are small strips of land - often eight to 10 feet wide -sandwiched between lakefront cottages and providing back-lot owners the right to get to and from the lake.

But when they do not specifically state that easement users have dock rights, courts usually have interpreted the easements to exclude docks, boat-mooring, and even sunbathing, said attorney Clifford Bloom, author of a column on lakefront property rights for a publication of the Michigan Lakes & Streams Association Inc.

There are exceptions. Michigan courts have sided with back-lot owners when they have shown that a dock has been on an easement for 15 years or more and owners of adjoining lakefront properties haven't objected.

It makes a difference, too, if the lakefront owner specifically gave permission for the dock. In such cases, back-lot owners usually aren't permitted to keep docks when the lakefront place is sold to a new owner who objects, said Mr. Bloom, of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Easement is one of at least a half-dozen ways in which developers of lake subdivisions provided for back-lot owners to get access to the lake. Each has unique stipulations affecting water rights, Mr. Bloom noted.

Real estate agents and sellers sometimes mislead buyers about the extent of lake access, the lawyer contended. “I wish they would be more careful,” he said.

“We live in a more litigious society. There is something mystical about lakefront property. Disputes people might not have over suburban property on dry land seem to bother them more on vacation property.”

Another reason disputes are growing is that interest in back lots has jumped. “There were a lot of back lots that no one built on,” Mr. Bloom said. “Now, they contain seven new homes. Each of them wants to put up a dock. They're fighting not only with lakefront owners on either side but with each other.”

Al Loeffler, a real estate executive in Michigan's Hillsdale and Branch counties, tells buyers of back-lot properties that unless the deed specifically states that the easement includes the right to put up a dock, they shouldn't count on being able to do it.

Lakefront owners have no right to object to someone fishing from a boat anchored in front of their property. This is common on most large lakes in Michigan, which have state-maintained areas where anyone can launch a boat or personal watercraft.

Mark Riggle, a real estate executive in Michigan's Irish Hills in Lenawee County, said he has noticed a growing number of disputes over the use of shoreline at the ends of roadways.

Nearby back-lot owners have used these areas for swimming and boating for years. In one common arrangement, they would get together and erect a dock for their joint use. One would be designated dock master to oversee maintenance and to make sure everyone helped pay expenses. But lakefront owners are challenging these, and courts have varied rulings.

At $70,000 to $200,000, costs of lake access cottages in the Irish Hills are half that of lakefront property, Mr. Riggle noted.

Mr. Welper, the lawyer in Hillsdale, advises buyers of lake properties: “Whether buying a back lot or lakefront, the No. 1 thing is to read carefully all of the covenants that there may be in the deed and restrictions dealing with usage of the property and lake and who can use it ...

“Be very careful and verify everything.'



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