It is that time of year again. Summer is around the corner, and lakefront and riverfront property owners all across the state are starting to think about when to get their piers back in or what day they want to drop their boat in. Inevitably, this time of year is when neighbors old and new may start to interfere with other waterfront property owners’ rights to access the water. One of the many issues surrounding lake and river property owners – referred to as ‘riparian owners’ or ‘riparians’- is cramped shorelines and close lot lines. Lots that used to house a small summer cottage may now be replaced with newer builds. Smaller side lots put riparian owners in close quarters with their neighbors, which can contribute to pier and access disputes. In addition, the amounts and types of watercraft being used by riparian owners has increased dramatically over time, making access to the water more difficult.

Know Your Rights

The first question to ask is, what rights and responsibilities does the riparian owner have? Each riparian has the right to access the water from a pier and to store a boat for the same purpose. A riparian owner’s right to access a waterbody can be found in a deed or easement. The number of piers, number of boat slips, and length of pier are all dependent on the circumstances of the riparian’s property. Each riparian owner is entitled to the exclusive right to reach navigable water, to have reasonable access to and from navigable water, and to have reasonable access for bathing and swimming. This means riparians have a responsibility not to interfere with another riparian’s access to the water.

The Public Trust Doctrine

This standard balances the rights of all lakefront owners and the rights of the public to riparian space. The public trust doctrine provides that waters of the State of Wisconsin are held “in trust” by the State for the benefit of the public. Therefore, the rights of a riparian owner are tempered by the rights of the public to use a public waterbody, and riparians cannot interfere with the public’s use of the water

Some bodies of water are private and not subject to access by the public, so long as riparian owners own all of the land below and around the waterbody, and there is no public access.

The Role of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR)

The DNR provides paperwork on the best practices for pier placement; however, with the increase in lake and river property development, easement access, and unique circumstances of the lot or the shoreline, the DNR does not provide detailed information on how and where to put a pier in a neighbor dispute. The DNR regulates and protects the public’s access to public waterbodies and ensures that a riparian’s pier is not too long or too big, whereby it prohibits or restricts the public’s access to the water beyond a few feet from the shore.

Bottom Line – How Are Your Rights Settled?

Each owner is allotted an equitable portion of the shore, in order to allow them these rights to access the water. The good news is that a riparian owner’s right to the water is based on a fairness standard. The bad news is that in the event neighbors cannot agree to pier placement between themselves, the final arbiter of your allotted space for your pier to effectuate your riparian rights is a judge in a court of law.