Conflict over a boat slip goes to court.

The Case

West Michigan Dock & Market Corporation v. Lakeland Investments210 Mich.App. 505

Court of Appeals of Michigan May 12, 1995 This case can be read in its entirety in 534 North Western Reporter, 2d Series, pages 212-217

The Facts

The case involves a dispute over the ownership of, and rights to, a boat slip. The plaintiff, W. Mich. Dock, and the defendant, Lakeland, own adjacent waterfront industrial properties on Muskegon Lake, an inland lake approximately 6 to 7 miles long and 1/2 to 2 miles wide. Each parcel includes a pier that extends outward into the lake. These two piers are separated by approximately 390 feet of water that forms a fully navigable boat slip. The pier on W. Mich. Dock's property forms the eastern side of the slip; the shoreline portion of W. Mich. Dock's property comprises the southern end of the slip. Lakeland's pier is on the western side of the slip, while Muskegon Lake is at the open, northern end.

Lakeland and its predecessors have used the west 40 ft. of the boat slip for the dockage of their business vessels, including tugboats and barges, for about 60 years. That proved acceptable until 1989 when Lakeland leased its property to a marina and made improvements to its pier that extended into the boat slip. That controversy ended temporarily when the marina went out of business, but it was revived in 1991 when Lakeland moored a World War II vintage submarine in the slip as a public museum. Although the submarine was moved the following year, W. Mich. Dock proceeded with action to quiet title.

The Ruling

The trial court ruled in favor of the plaintiff and allowed defendant to keep improvements to dock which encroached upon boat slip owned by W. Mich. Dock, upon payment of $5,000 or, alternatively, requiring defendant to remove encroachment. The court limited Lakeland's use of the boat slip to loading and unloading vessels and prohibited Lakeland from mooring its vessels for more than one week without permission.

The defendant appealed, claiming that:

  • Plaintiff did not own the bottom land of the slip; that the State of Michigan owned the bottom land of the Great Lakes, and Muskegon Lake is a part of Lake Michigan.

  • The trial court erred in determining the location of plaintiff's western riparian boundary.

  • Defendant had property interest in the west 40 feet of the boat slip by means of adverse possession, prescriptive easement or acquiescence.

  • Limited defendant riparian owner's reasonable use of boat slip.

Points of Law to Consider

1. Adverse Possession

Claimant must show that its possession is actual, visible, open, notorious, exclusive, hostile, under cover of claim or right and continuous for statutory period of 15 years

2. Easement by Prescription

Requires elements similar to elements of adverse possession, except exclusivity.

3. Doctrine of Acquiescence

Provides that where adjoining property owners acquiesce to boundary line for period of at least 15 years, that line becomes actual boundary line.

Applicable State Law

Water and Water Courses

While title of lands covered by the Great Lakes belongs to state, owner of property bounded by inland watercourse owns bottom land of lake or stream to centerline. The title of riparian land owner extends to middle line of inland lake. (To establish riparian boundaries of oblong lake affected by accretion, line is drawn from point where property line met original lakeshore to median center line of lake as nearly perpendicular as possible.)

Navigable Waters

Use of water by riparian owners is governed by principles of reasonableness. They may use surface of whole lake as long as they do not interfere with reasonable use of waters by other riparian owners.

YOU BE THE JUDGE! (see page xx for appeals court ruling)

Appeals Court Ruling

The appeals court affirmed in favor of the plaintiff, W. Mich. Dock.

The court disagreed with the defendant that Muskegon Lake was a part of Lake Michigan, therefore, plaintiff does have ownership of the bottom land of the slip under the laws governing waters and water courses.

The court ruled that defendant's claim that trial court erred in determining locations of W. Mich. Dock's western riparian boundary was without merit. The plaintiff's surveyor testified that he examined the deed describing plaintiff's property, established the parcel's parameters and extended a line from the water's edge at right angles to the center of the lake. After performing the necessary measurements, he concluded that the entire boat slip was situated within the plaintiff's property description. He also checked plaintiff's western property line against defendant's adjacent eastern property line, defined in deed as "North 38 degrees 32 minutes West," and determined that the lines were common. The defendant's surveyor did not testify that a different riparian line existed or that the plaintiff's surveyor's calculations were incorrect.

Also, the court ruled that defendant could not claim adverse possession because mutual use of property with the owner's permission is insufficient to establish adverse possession. Further, the court ruled, permissive use of property, regardless of the length of the use, will not result in an easement by prescription.

According to the court, the doctrine of acquiescence does not apply either because correspondence between the two parties established that both the plaintiff and the defendant understood that the boat slip was on plaintiff's property and that Lakeland and its predecessor used the slip with plaintiff's permission until 1989.

The defendant's remaining claim, that the trial court limited its reasonable use of the boat slip, and as a riparian property owner, its navigational rights supersede plaintiff's bottom land rights, was also deemed without merit. Lakeland retains its right to load and unload vessels on the eastern side of its pier, and the trial court's ruling that Lakeland must pay W. Mich. Dock $5,000 or remove its encroachment into plaintiff's boat slip still stands.