For Michigan shore-dwellers, life’s a beach, and that’s the problem

Talk to enough Great Lakes shoreline property owners, and, sooner or later, you're bound to hear this lament: "If it's not my property, why do they keep sending me the property tax bills?"

Chances are the lamenter is referring to a particular part of his property. The most attractive part. The very part, in fact, that makes beachfront property so desirable:

The beach.

Which is precisely the part the property owner doesn't really own. He can't for example, chase people off it, and although he may plant his beach umbrella in this little no-man's land caressed by the waves, he'd better not disturb any plant roots in the process.

In Department of Environmental Quality terms, the sweet spot goes from the edge of the water to the "ordinary high water mark."

So, how does a property owner know an "ordinary high water" mark when he sees it? The Michigan Supreme Court defines it this way:

"The point on the bank or shore up to which the presence and action of the water is so continuous as to leave a distinct mark either by erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, or other easily recognized characteristic. And where the bank or shore at any particular place is of such a character that is impossible or difficult to ascertain where the point of ordinary high-water mark is, recourse may be had to other places on the bank or shore of the same stream or lake to determine whether a given stage of water is above or below ordinary high-water mark."

If you think that sounds a little murky, you have lots of company.

Actually the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act of 1994 provides a more precise definition, assigning elevations above sea level for the ordinary high-water marks of each of the Great Lakes - 579.8 feet, for example, for Lakes Michigan and Huron.

Is that number really of any use to a property owner with an urge to disturb some plant roots on a Saturday afternoon?

But let's assume the property owner can, indeed, identify the high-water mark, Public Act 247 of 2012 defines, to some extent, what he can and cannot do to it. He can, for example, remove vegetation by "hand pulling" or "shallow tilling," but only in "very sparsely vegetated areas." He can level sand. as long as it doesn't cause "alteration of the natural lakeshore contours." He can remove debris "by raking or dragging, pushing or pulling metal teeth," but only if doesn't result in "disturbance of, or destruction to, plant roots."

As for the question of who has a right to tread on this property, the law is more precise. Sort of. In the landmark 2005 case of Glass v. Goeckel, the state Supreme Court ruled that everybody has the right to walk within the "public trust zone." The court majority defined this area as below the high-water mark. Water levels vary greatly along Great Lakes shorelines, and the ordinary high water mark provides a consistent line - regardless of temporary lake levels - below which public trust rights are guaranteed. The majority ruled public trust rights and private ownership can co-exist on the same stretch of shoreline.

As a owner of beach property on northern Lake Huron, I believe this is a good thing. This land, as Woody Guthrie said, was made for you and me, and people should be able to walk the Great Lakes coastlines without having to climb fences, or risk the wrath of territorial property owners. However … however, I just might become a little less sanguine if a rowdy bunch with a boombox and a case of beer decided to spend the day on the "public trust zone" in front of my cottage.

If a person can walk the shoreline in front of private cottages, can he stop there? For how long? Can he build a bonfire? Can he beach his boat on the sand in front of private property, and party all night? The Supreme Court didn't open that can of worms. It declined to dive into all the possible dos and don'ts, probably because there would be no end to such a list.

Most likely they'll be hammered out, one by one, in court cases to come.

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Sat, 03/22/2014 - 9:05am
I thought that the high water mark was 584 ft. However, the beach should belong to the people of the State of Michigan. In the Supreme Court battle the home owners wanted to the water's edge. Let's assume that the water level dropped 20 ft, does this mean that they have gained land? Let's be extreme and say Lake Michigan dried up, would the property owners now have all the land to the Wisconsin boarder? Of course, when the water level is very high, these same property owners want assistance form the State. Such is life on the Great Lakes!
Sun, 03/23/2014 - 5:54am
People today are so inconsiderate of beach front property. We get to clean up after walkers with their dogs and pick up trash and beer bottles. Invasive species such as phragmities and zebra mussels actually prevent people from using a beach. Last year Saginaw Bay and Lake Erie had algae bloom on the beaches. Beach front owners need the "tools" to maintain a beautiful beach.
Sun, 03/23/2014 - 7:44am
I live on a seawalled property as are all properties along a significant river and near a major lake linked to the Great Lakes. Our local interpretation has been that people can walk along the seawall as long as they stay within 4 feet. How is that for a "natural shoreline". I am not certain that this is law, just local thought on the matter of trespassing. But, seawalls are all privately maintained. If not maintained properly and other property is damaged or a person is injured there will be a lawsuit against the landowner. My insurance agent said that Homeowners alone would not cover this risk so a Broad Personal Liability Policy is required. So, my thought is to post No Trespassing and to keep my fences up until someone takes it all to court.
Sun, 03/23/2014 - 2:20pm
The riparian rights for inland lakes and rivers are different from those rights as they are applied to the Great Lakes. Anyone living on a body of water should have extra liability insurance. P.S. All sea walls on Houghton Lake contributed to its decline.
Mon, 03/24/2014 - 8:33am
This problem is not unique to owners of beach front property. Almost all property has a certain amount of right of away that the public can use for travel, a sidewalk in the city being the best example. When people leave trash or dog excrement it can be upsetting, but in these cases there is also very little clear recourse. The right of way is common to all routes for travel and this includes bodies of water. You are not alone beach front property owners. The collapse of social etiquette is disturbing, but I do not think anyone has a solution. I also agree that the part of the property that is part of any right of way should be taxed at a lower value as the owner cannot actually use it yet is forced to maintain it for the benefit of the public (a beach is less work than a grass median, so take solace beach front owners in that).
Mon, 03/24/2014 - 1:37pm
How is walking past someone's property along Lake Michigan, with a huge frontage depth, any different from an impact standpoint than walking past someone's house on the sidewalk? These people are elitists and need to get a grip, especially if they live right next to a state park.
Thu, 02/11/2016 - 2:52pm
Elitist? Do you know every person that lives on the water?? You feel it right to say that when you don't get to use what you want when you want?? It's our backyard not the Public Park area, and that is paid for by the public for it's use. I love that you can call all of us elitist when you don't want to spend the money to live on the water. BTW there are people that live on the water that are anything but elitist.
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 12:45am
You dont own an inch more than your deed says. I have torn a few private property signs out over my life from little cry baby elitists who think they can bluff their way through life and take what they want, even though they don't own it. Boo hoo little bitch.
Wed, 07/27/2016 - 9:00am
Thank you are exactly right. We the Public are the right side of history on this. I too will not be intimidated by some elitist snob putting up a "private beach" or "no-trespassing" sign. I have not gone so far as to tear them down, but I have no problem walking right past them and going where I want along the beach as long as I am within the Courts' defined OHWM. I have begun to take a copy of the law with me in my backpack and simply hand it to any homeowner who comes out and tries to intimidate me. Once guy last summer threatened to call the cops on me! I said, "that's a GREAT idea"...lets call them right now...any DNR officer will tell you exactly what I am saying dude!" YOU DON'T OWN THE BEACH ALONG LAKE MICHIGAN!!!
Fri, 01/20/2017 - 11:58am

First....I bought my lakefront house BEFORE the ruling that you have a right to run up and down my beach. I bought under a different understanding. I bought when the public had the right to be 3 ft off the waters edge, where the public trust began. I understood this law and accepted it and bought the waterfront home. The State of Michigan changed the game, without my input. The high court took the beach that I had paid for, without compensating me.....just took it and gave it to everyone else, who is NOT PAYING TAXES ON MY PERSONAL PROPERTY. Michigan did, what MOST communistic countries did to their personal property owners. So Michigan devalued my property, plus still assesses the property as 'waterfront' when what they really did was reduce my waterfront status to view status which is assessed at a lower value. I see Michigan as a huge socialistic welfare state, with a welfare mentality. I was born, and graduated from schools in Michigan. My family has been in Northern Michigan since the mid 1850 when it was opened up to homesteaders. I know how residents resent out of state waterfront owners....and I know it is pure jealousy at the heart of the matter. Michigan voting residents want Out of State people to fund their schools, but they also want our property waterfront beach. Greed and jealousy was the courts real reason, disguised in 'public desire/rights'. Basically the courts did what they did because they could, and because most of the waterfront is not owned by locals who voted for them. It is all wrong and goes against property ownership and the AMERICAN WAY. When I visit Michigan, I think Sweden, or Norway, or Russia and keep my thoughts and opinions to myself. We will retire, and claim residency and my taxes will be cut in half soon. for your own schools, like I do in my current home state. And consolidate them and stop hiring your relatives to teach a class of 5 kids. My kids were in classes of 18 to 25 in Ohio.

Ric Curtis
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 10:33pm
I continue to love my Lake Michigan beach (thanks Great-Grand-Father) these past sixty years. I love seeing others enjoy the beach in its many variations through the seasons. On occasion I will point out to visitors and passersby they are on, in and using my backyard. With those to whom respect is earned and maintained all-the-better. Toward those bringing a sense of entitlement that includes abuses, overuse and disrespect I am happy to know the laws of shorelines of Lake Michigan allow me to encourage them to move along. Common senses with civility and mutual respect, is and has been, my experience over the years with few exceptions. Most of the beach most of the time is underutilized and properly respected. Bad actions of the few often precipitate overreaction resulting in bad laws; Thus, creating great losses for everyone and ongoing antagonism that may smooth out but never really disappear. So sad in effect yet I see much room for hope and improvement with widened awareness and education (in civility, personal limits and personal responsibilities).
Mon, 07/11/2016 - 12:48am
The water and beach are NOT your backyard. Your property stops at the High Water Mark and your deed is worthless beyond that. You have no more special connection to the beach and water than any other person.
Cindy Standle
Fri, 01/20/2017 - 12:00pm

Dan, read up on 'riparian rights'. It is unique to waterfront owners on the Great Lakes and the inland lakes and streams. Then comment from knowledge.

Thu, 12/01/2016 - 7:14am
You have the right to pass from one beach front owners property line to the other line within the waters edge to the high water mark. You can sit in the water all day if you want to do that since that is in the Public Trust. That is your right....transfer....move on. Anfd the G vs G case will prob end in the near future, as it did on Lake Erie, in Ohio. Hopefully it goes back to transport 3ft in the water is the public's right to move around, and pass. Elitist.....I would like to see you pay for these rights like I do.....some of those properties you pass on Lake Michigan are paying $20,000.00 to $50,000.00 a year. They are paying for Michigan schools their kids don't attend, for non existing fire dept, social programs in a state they don't use....and yes....they pay for their schools and fire and police and social programs in the cities they come from. You should be grateful they pay into local schools, so your children can have small classrooms and one on one teacher interaction. Be grateful and respectful for what lakefront owners do for the communities...instead of being jealous and spiteful. Here are some of the laws in past them and understand. I hope the current law changes like it did in Ohio on Lake Erie. (Reparian means property with frontage on the lake and lake front owner's position) 2. Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair The boundary line is the ordinary high water mark. The riparian owner controls the exposed soil between the ordinary high water mark and the water's edge and may, therefore, prevent the public from trespassing on this exposed soil if he so chooses. The public does, however, have a right of passage in any area adjacent to riparian land covered by water. OAG, 1977-78, No. 5327, p. 518, (July 6, 1978). A riparian owner owns to the ordinary high water mark but controls and has exclusive use of the exposed soil between the ordinary high water mark and the water's edge. Donohue v Russell, 264 Mich. 217; 249 NW 830 (1933). The ordinary high water mark is set by statute through Part 325, 1994 PA 451, Great Lakes Submerged Land, MCL 324.32501 et seq; MSA 13A.32501 et seq. Submerged lands above the ordinary high water mark are subject to the right of navigation. "Riparian Rights in Michigan" Riparian rights are property rights which run with the land. Only land which abuts a natural body of water has riparian rights. A riparian property owner has the following property rights: 1. Access to water. 2. Install a dock anchored to his bottomland. 3. Anchor a boat on his bottomland or secure it to his dock. 4. Use water from the lake or stream for domestic purposes. 5. Controls any temporarily or periodically exposed bottomland from the water's edge to the high water mark against trespass
Jim Gardner
Sat, 11/22/2014 - 11:59pm
I own and pay taxes on over 3000 ft of road frontage. I own to the center of the road. The county or state has control of 35 feet of my land from the center of the road into my property .Cars and trucks travel on my land day and night yet I have no control of it yet I pay taxes on this land. So why should I not be able to walk on a Beach If the same people who own the beach can drive or walk on my land .
Sun, 09/18/2016 - 1:32pm
I live 2 miles from Lake Michigan, near Fennville, and I walk the shore at least a couple times a week. I've lived in West Michigan 50+ years, and I know if I'm at the waterline, no one has any right to say anything to me - and you know what? No one ever has, except when they smile and say "hi" or I greet them first. Lakeshore folks are some of the nicest folks in our state - especially the ones who are middle-aged/baby boomers (my peeps). If I could afford a million-dollar+ home on the shoreline, I wouldn't want some people hanging out in front of my home either, any more than I'd want some drunk idiot being loud and leaving beer cans on the sidewalk in front of my house. But really, as much as I'm at the beach - and that's a lot - most people are respectable, polite, friendly types just looking for pretty stones or sea glass and quick to offer a smile and say "hello."