HOAs & Riparian Rights-Can I Put A Dock Here?

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Facts

The dispute in this case centered on what rights owners of lots that did not have frontage on a lake (“Non-Lake Lot Owners”) had to place a dock in the lake based on the restrictive rights for their homeowner’s association (“HOA”) which were recorded in 1922. The HOA consisted of 146 lots. All Non-Lake Lots were granted a perpetual easement over and across seven lakefront outlots for their use and enjoyment, including access to the lake. Some of the Non-Lake Lot Owners construed this broadly enough that they installed a dock and used one of the outlots for activities unrelated to the water (picnics and such). Plaintiff, a “Lake Lot Owner”, had a letter sent to the Non-Lake Lot Owner Defendants demanding that they stop using the outlot and remove the dock. The parties disagreed. Plaintiff sued.

Trial Court

The trial court, on summary disposition “agreed with the Plaintiffs’ interpretation of the restrictive covenants and ruled that Defendants had an easement of access to the lake for water-related activities only” but could not erect a permanent dock. Defendants appealed.

Appeals Court:
  1. The court held that the case required a determination of whether or not the Non-Lake Lot Owners were granted riparian rights (land that includes or is bounded by water);
  2. “Owners of riparian land enjoy certain exclusive rights, including the rights to erect and maintain docks and to permanently anchor boats off the shore.”
  3. Restrictive covenants are contracts created with the intention of “enhancing the value of property and is a valuable property right.”
  4. The goal of contract interpretation is to “give effect to the ascertainable intent of the drafter.”
  5. The law allows an original owner of riparian property to grant an easement to other owners in an association to enjoy certain rights traditionally regarded as exclusive to riparian ownership.
  6. The case was reversed and remanded because the restrictive covenants failed to clarify the scope of the easement and dock provisions and therefore additional evidence was required to determine the original grantors intent.
LESSONS:
  1. Riparian rights – access to water – is a valuable property right and people regularly fight about it;
  2. If you want to avoid these fights make sure that your documents are written as clearly as possible in the first place; and
  3. The cost of a lawsuit significantly exceeds the additional cost and time of writing the documents more clearly in the first place.

Kraus v. Link, 2020 WL 504973 (2020. Mich)

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