REAL ESTATE 27: Subdivision dispute over riparian rights.

The individuals involved in this action are all owners of lots in the Park Subdivision. The subdivision was platted in 1917 and consists of 26 lots, a street, and a park that abuts a Lake. This case involves a dispute over riparian rights. Defendants (collectively the front-lot owners) appeal as of right the trial court’s order denying defendants’ motion for summary disposition, declaring as a matter of law under MCR 2.116(I)(1) that all lot owners in the Park Subdivision have a use easement in the platted park but no riparian rights, and dismissing all remaining claims as moot.

All of the individual plaintiffs (collectively the back-lot owners) own back lots. The back lots are separated from the Lake by both the front lots and the park. None of the back lots border the park or the lake.

In 2017, a dispute developed between the front-lot owners and back-lot owners over the use of the park and, specifically, rights to install docks and moor boats. The front-lot owners maintained that they exclusively owned the riparian rights in the park and that the back-lot owners only had an easement permitting them to use the park for customary park purposes that did not include the right to install docks or moor watercraft overnight or seasonally.

Plaintiffs, which included the back-lot owners and the Park Subdivision Association, filed a lawsuit seeking (1) a declaratory judgment that all subdivision lot owners held equal and coextensive rights regarding the ownership and use of the park and (2) to quiet title in favor of all lot owners with a declaration that all lot owners held fee simple title to the park.

When a person purchases property that is recorded in a plat, the purchaser receives both the interest described in the deed and the rights indicated in the plat.  The court’s task when interpreting a plat is to give effect to the plattor’s intent, and unambiguous language in a legal instrument is enforced as written.

A parcel is considered riparian land if it includes therein a part of or is bounded by a natural water course.  Owners of riparian land hold certain exclusive rights, including the right to erect and maintain docks, as well as to permanently anchor boats off the shore. The plat in the instant case shows that the eastern boundary of each front lot abuts the western boundary of the park and that the front lots thus do not extend any further east. The area of land designated as a park is situated between the front lots and the lake, with the eastern edge of the park abutting the lake. Hence, the front lots in this case are not riparian in the ordinary sense and do not satisfy this general definition of riparian land. Generally, it is an indispensable requisite that riparian land actually touches the water.

However, there are exceptions.  The possession of riparian rights by owners of property separated from the shoreline by only a road or walkway is grounded in the legal principles generally applicable to owners of property abutting roads. This rule is not based on the mere fact that such a property owner is closer to the water than the owner of what may be called a “back lot.”

The Court noted that the undisputed evidence that the original plattor had supplied the park with electricity, portable toilets, and picnic tables supported the conclusion that the original plattor intended to retain general control and, accordingly, ownership of the park.

The trial court determined that the plat dedication granted an easement to use the park to all of the lot owners and did not grant riparian rights to any lot owners.

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