Think Twice If Your Friends Want to Keep Their Boat at Your Dock

If you have a waterfront property, you may have friends and extended family members who have asked to keep a boat at your dock. Maybe they even offered to pay you for the privilege. While you want to be a good friend and might not see a reason not to do this, there are actually some very good reasons to say no. Allowing the owner of non-waterfront or “backlot” property to access the water by way of your waterfront property is a form of “keyholing” or “funneling.”

Keyholing or funneling arrangements allow multiple persons, or multiple lots within a subdivision, to access a body of water through one shared piece of property. There is no direct prohibition against such arrangements in Michigan riparian law. They are actually quite common in lakeside subdivisions. However, setting up a keyholing or funneling arrangement without following applicable laws and regulations and going through the proper channels for approval is asking for trouble. Here are some of the potential issues:

Neighbor Complaints

Waterfront property is highly coveted, and landowners pay more for the privilege of owning a property with direct access to the water. When a particular area of a body of water becomes overly crowded, riparian owners living in that area can become annoyed. And sometimes, with good reason. Accessing the water through unauthorized points may amount to an unreasonable interference with the rights of the riparian property owners. It could also run afoul of laws relating to trespass or nuisance.

Zoning Violations

Townships have the authority to regulate boat docking and launching and can enact zoning ordinances regulating riparian rights. Zoning ordinances may contain anti-funneling or anti-keyholing restrictions. Even if no ordinance specifically prohibits such an arrangement, it could amount to an impermissible multi-family use in a district zoned for only single-family residential use.

Unpermitted Marinas

It is also possible that sharing your dock could amount to establishing a “marina,” which requires a construction permit. The Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NERPA) (Subsection 30101(j) of Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams) defines “marina” as “a facility that is owned or operated by a person, extends into or over an inland lake or stream and offers service to the public or members of the marina for docking, loading, or other servicing of recreational watercraft.”

Property owners, including owners of multi-family properties like condominiums and apartment buildings, sometimes believe they do not need a permit to build a shared-use docking facility if it is a “seasonal structure,” meaning a structure that is removed at the end of the boating season. Section 30103 of Part 301 exempts seasonal structures that “facilitate private noncommercial recreational use” from permit requirements. However, according to the Marinas Program at the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), “private commercial recreational use” means only the reasonable exercise of legitimate riparian rights associated with waterfront property zoned and used for single-family residential use.

Personal Liability

Another reason to think twice about letting friends use your dock is the liability potential. Water activities carry a particularly high risk of injury, and the financial risk is substantial. Marinas usually carry marina liability insurance and require contracts with their clients that shift responsibility to the boat owners. They also generally require boat owners to carry their own insurance and may require that they add the marina as an additional insured.

It can be hard to say no to a good friend or family member. If you explain the problems to them, though, they should understand. If you need more information, ask an attorney with experience in Michigan riparian law.

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