Water access causing fights
By Ed White
The Grand Rapids Press
Posted on mlive.com on August 14, 2005
NEWAYGO -- Seeking an idyllic retreat, Glenn and Lynnae
Jarrell bought a $60,000 cottage on a hill overlooking
a Newaygo County lake.
"We talk about this place like it's 'Golden Pond,'"
he told a judge, referring to a famous movie starring
Henry Fonda. "I would like to have a rowboat that
I putt around in and do a little fishing."
Indeed, it sounds appealing. But, just weeks after arriving
at Sylvan Lake in 2001, the East Grand Rapids couple learned
it also might be illegal.
For four years, they were in court challenging lakefront
neighbors over the right to erect a dock and tie up boats.
The question: Did a decades-old easement allow more than
just swimming, sunbathing and paddling a canoe?
"If I paid what they paid, I would be happy with
swimming privileges," said year-round lakeshore resident
Cindy Stariha. She and husband Joe own the 40-foot beach
at the center of the dispute.
"We also own a couple hundred acres in the wilderness.
Sometimes, we think, 'Is it worth it to be here?' "
she said before the saga ended last week.
The right to walk along miles of Great Lakes beaches
has made headlines, but access to Michigan's 11,000 inland
lakes can provoke even more passion.
As people retire or hunt for second homes, and properties
change hands for the first time in generations, controversies
have erupted between lakefront residents and back-lot
owners. In some cases, friendly, informal agreements that
lasted for years suddenly become contested.
Separately, state lawmakers, responding to a long-running
battle at Higgins Lake in northern Michigan, are considering
a ban on docks at the end of public roads.
"These cases become very emotionally charged,"
said attorney Mike Roth, who represents the Jarrells in
Newaygo County but usually steps in for lakefront owners
seeking to aggressively enforce restrictions.
"Lakefront lots come at a premium," he said.
"People work hard to get these properties and try
to make memories for their families. ... Inland lakes
typically don't have as many feet of frontage. You feel
the effects of your neighbor when they're right next to
Since fall, the Michigan Court of Appeals has made nearly
a dozen decisions in lake fights, some favoring the rear
lots and others going to waterfront owners:
In Frankfort, southwest of Traverse City, Dennis Czeryba
and family members own cottages across a road from Crystal
An easement gives them access to the lake through another
property, but a new lakefront owner erected a fence just
before an annual July 4 picnic.
"We thought about tearing it down, but that would
have gotten the sheriff involved," said Czeryba,
56, of suburban Detroit.
A dock and boats are OK because the families had used
the easement that way for at least 15 years, the court
said. The fence was removed.
"Kind of silly," Czeryba said of litigation
that collectively cost more than $100,000. "At a
cottage, you think people would like to get along."
Barry County's Yankee Springs Township successfully sued
to prohibit eight back-lot families from using ownership
in a single lakeside lot to claim valuable dock rights
on Gun Lake.
The scheme ran smack into the township's "anti-funneling"
ordinance, which is aimed at preventing a piece of land
from becoming a funnel to the popular lake. The law says
there must be a certain amount of frontage for each family.
That lot flunked the test.
"We try to keep down the number of boats," Supervisor
Al McCrumb said. "It's to protect riparian owners
for their right to use the lake, and just to protect against
Elsewhere in Barry County, there have been controversies
at Algonquin Lake, near Hastings.
Rob and Catherine Longstreet bought a waterfront home
for relatives. They noticed back-lot residents were turning
narrow public-access strips into "marinas,"
although the easement didn't allow it.
After a three-day trial, a judge said only a few families
with historical use could keep boats. Others could form
an association and put a dock elsewhere off a public parkway.
"I don't think they erroneously interpreted it --
they knew it was wrong," Rob Longstreet said of the
back-lot families. "Now, there's no more confusion."
In a similar case on the other side of Algonquin, residents
who don't live on the water could get mooring privileges,
but lakefront owners would have veto power under a compromise
awaiting a judge's review.
More money, more rights
So what's going on here? Can't everyone enjoy an inland
lake the same way?
No, says Cliff Bloom, a Grand Rapids lawyer who specializes
in water law.
"One who purchases a cheaper $10 seat way in the
back of a theater should not complain about the poor view
and acoustics," he and partner Roth wrote in an Algonquin
While it might sound "cold-hearted," they said,
water lovers who want a full bundle of lakefront rights
"should have spent the extra money."
In an interview, Bloom, who represents the Michigan Lake
and Stream Associations, a statewide group of waterfront
owners, said conflicts grow because lakefront properties
are becoming "scarcer and scarcer."
A strict reading of deeds and easements, he said, probably
was ignored when members of the same family shared a quiet
inland lake. But times change -- and so can ownership.
"No one had jet skis years ago. People have gone
from having a rowboat to wanting a 100-foot dock,"
Bloom said. "In the past, many lots were not even
built on; they weren't seen as valuable. The list goes
on and on."
'Plain and unambiguous'
In 2003, the Michigan Supreme Court announced a key legal
standard to help determine the rights that back-lot owners
could have on inland lakes. When the language of an easement
is "plain and unambiguous, it is to be enforced as
written and no further inquiry is permitted."
That unanimous conclusion led to significant consequences
for the Jarrell and Stariha families on Sylvan Lake.
Located off M-37, about 40 miles north of Grand Rapids,
Sylvan is a private, spring-fed lake with no public boat
launch. A single, narrow road -- paved in parts, gravel
elsewhere -- rings it and the adjacent Emerald Lake. There
are modest cottages here, along with homes worth more
"Just wait a few minutes," Cindy Stariha said,
standing on her dock and looking west. "You'll have
a sunset that will be gorgeous."
The Jarrells arrived four years ago, purchasing a cottage
high off the lake but one that still allows access to
a beach owned by the Starihas.
It was a rocky start.
Joe Stariha "would enter into some kind of diatribe
about what I could or couldn't do -- that I couldn't keep
a boat there, I couldn't have a dock," Glenn Jarrell,
48, said during a one-day trial.
Stariha, 49, doesn't recall it being too contentious:
"We just said, 'Look, these are the rules.'"
But when the Jarrells chained a canoe to his flagpole,
"we had to call in law enforcement. ... That kind
of sent me off the deep end," Stariha said.
The Jarrells, in turn, took their neighbors to court,
claiming language in the deed to their hilltop haven went
beyond just swimming and skipping stones.
Piers and docks
The easement, written in 1964, granted "pier rights,"
although the old pier dating back to the timber era was
removed in 1966.
Newaygo County Judge Anthony Monton said the right to
a dock disappeared with that pier. The Michigan Court
of Appeals, however, said "pier rights" survive,
especially when the easement is tied to ownership in land.
The court pulled out a college dictionary to define pier
Last week, after shuttling in and out of Monton's chambers,
both sides reached a settlement: The Jarrells can tie
a boat to the Starihas' dock, starting in 2006. If the
dock is removed, the Jarrells can install their own.
"All we wanted," Lynnae Jarrell said outside
court, "was what we bought."