The Relationship Between Zoning and Riparian Rights

R-1 Zoning and Riparian RightsImage

The enactment of a zoning ordinance is the primary method by which private land use is regulated.  Townships have long been authorized, through zoning and police power, to restrict the manner in which a private citizen may use his land.  Typically a township creates land use classifications such as residential, commercial and industrial.  Within each classification there are defined allowable uses to which certain land can be put to.

At Higgins Lake, both Lyon Township and Gerrish Township have sophisticated land use regulations.  As to the lakeshore of Higgins Lake, the vast majority of the parcels are designated as single family residential (“R-1”).  In general terms, an R-1 classification means that the use of the land is limited to a single family unit.  In contrast, for instance, an R-2 designation allows multiple family uses.

The courts of Michigan have ruled that local units of government may regulate riparian bottomlands through zoning (and police power) ordinances.  Because riparian ownership may not be severed from adjoining uplands, whatever zoning classification is placed on the upland is also applied to the adjacent riparian.  Accordingly, the vast majority of Higgins Lake bottomlands are restricted to R-1 usage.

What does the R-1 classification mean in terms of the use of your riparian property?  Two cases decided by the Michigan appellate courts are instructive.  In Soupal v Shadyview (Gerrish Township) the court ruled that 8 families using an R-1 parcel on Higgins Lake was a nuisance per se and violated R-1 restrictions.  In Kallman v Sunseekers, the court ruled that a limited liability company could not allow its multiple family members to all use an R-1 parcel.  Both of these cases can be read in their entirety by visiting

Notwithstanding R-1 restrictions a riparian owner has an absolute right to seasonally moor a boat and erect a dock.  Furthermore, zoning has not been historically used to prevent immediate family members from enjoying mooring privileges as well.

Beyond owners and immediate relatives, the practice of allowing nonriparians to seasonally moor boats on  R-1 riparian land violates township zoning rules and state statute. In most situations it is a violation of either the Lyon Township zoning ordinance or the Gerrish Township zoning ordinance to allow your nonriparian neighbors and friends to seasonally moor a boat on your riparian.  In most circumstances it is a violation of state law to do so as well.  This because the State of Michigan regulates the practice of allowing nonriparians to seasonally moor boats on private bottomlands by requiring the riparian owner to first obtain a marina operating permit from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Long recognized as an expert in the field, William Carey stands ready to represent you on all property issues.

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