Lakeway easement interpreted as providing access, not a park

by Victoria Heldt

Bedford, et. al., v. Joan Yvonne Rogers, Joan Yvonne Rogers Trust
(Michigan Court of Appeals, April 17, 2012)

The long list of plaintiffs in this case is comprised of property owners within the Glen Eyrie subdivision located on Crystal Lake.  The plat (recorded in 1920) and the parties’ deeds established a 100-foot wide strip of land designated as the “lakeway” between the plaintiffs’ property and the edge of Crystal Lake.  The lots do not extend all the way to the water.  The lakeway was to be “dedicated to the common use of property owners in Glen Eyrie plat.”  Sometime after 1920, Crystal Lake Drive was constructed parallel to, and partially within, the lakeway.  Surveys done in 2001 and 2010 indicated that the border separating the property owners’ lots and the lakeway is located near the center line of Crystal Lake Drive.

Historically, some of the property owners built boathouses or storage units in the lakeway.  When Rogers purchased her lot in 1987 a 20 x 28-foot boathouse was built in the lakeway in front of her property.  In September 2009 she applied to the township for a permit to build a new 28 x 34-foot boathouse to replace the existing one.  The township granted the permit and Rogers began construction in October 2009.  The new “boathouse” was to include running water, heat, toilet facilities, a kitchenette, a workshop, and a second floor cupola.

As Rogers’ construction was in its early stages, the plaintiffs wrote a letter through an attorney asking Rogers to cease construction since the lakeway was reserved for the common use of property owners.  Rogers refused to stop the construction.  In December 2009 the Lake Township Zoning Administrator wrote her a letter stating the building violated the township’s zoning ordinance since it “includes substantial space designated by the Building Department as living quarters” and issued a stop work order.  Rogers appealed the administrator’s opinion and, in April 2010, the Board of Appeals voted that the boathouse constructed should be “allowed as a compatible non-commercial recreational facility.”  The Board did place certain conditions on the property that included the removal of certain residential features (e.g. a tub, shower, and certain fixed kitchen appliances).

In trial court, the plaintiffs filed a request for summary disposition citing trespass and nuisance.  They argued that the plat dedication granted property owners an “irrevocable easement over the lakeway property and prevented defendant from exclusively using the portion of the lakeway in front of her lot by constructing a new structure that expanded the footprint of the old boathouse.”  Rogers also filed for summary disposition, arguing she owned the portion of the lakeway in front of her property and had the right to make use of it.  The court noted that a tacit agreement existed among land owners that 100% of the lakeway was not dedicated for common use since most property owners built boathouses for personal use.  History supported that claim since most of the structures had existed for over 40 years.  The court acknowledged that the expansion of this boathouse by several feet would not further prevent other land owners from using and enjoying the lakeway.  It determined the expansion should be allowed.

On appeal the Court of Appeals first noted that a use under a plat dedication must be within the scope of the dedication and must not interfere with the owners’ use and enjoyment of the property.  In this case, the plaintiffs interpreted the plat dedication to create a park for common use by the lot owners.  This Court of Appeals disagreed.  The dedication stated that “the drive, court, spring road and lakeway” were dedicated for common use.  When interpreting language like this, it is in accordance with precedent to treat word groups in a list as having related meanings.  The drive, court, and spring road are all used as right-of-ways (access) for lot owners to travel to, from, and within the plat, not as a park (which implied open space without obstructions).  The Court stated that the lakeway is to be considered similar; i.e., as a right-of-way.  The Court further noted that the term “lakeway” suggests it should be used as a right-of-way rather than a park (since the word “way” is found within the term.)

Subsequently, the Court determined that “the scope of the dedication created an easement within the lakeway for common use of lot owners of the land as a right-of-way that allows lot owners to use the lakeway in the same manner as the drive, court, and spring road.”  Since Crystal Drive, which runs through the lakeway, satisfies the purpose of a right-of-way providing access, there is no need to prohibit obstructions such as boathouses from the lakeway.   The Court determined that the slightly larger boathouse would not prevent residents from using and enjoying the lakeway for its purpose as right-of-way any more so than the previous boathouse did.  Thus, it affirmed the trial court’s decision.

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