But Where Can I Put My Pier?

August 3, 2022

Summer is in full swing. Maybe you already own property on a lake. Maybe you are looking into buying property on a lake sometime this year. You are envisioning your children or friends and family lounging on the pier or jumping into the lake off of the pier in the heat of summer. You may get a new neighbor who places their pier a little too close to yours, or the configuration may be intrusive in one way or another. You may be the new neighbor wondering where you can place your pier, how you can reconfigure the current pier or why your neighbor’s pier is where it is. What are your next steps? What are your rights and what law do you look to?

Whether you have an easement which gives you access to the lake, or your house is adjacent to the lake, you (and your neighbor) have the same rights when it comes to pier placement. As a riparian owner – someone who owns land adjacent to a lake or other water body – you have the right to access the water from your pier and to store a boat for the same purpose. Each riparian owner is entitled to the exclusive right to the extent necessary to reach navigable water, to have reasonable access to and from navigable water, and to have reasonable access for bathing and swimming.

This standard balances the rights of all lakefront owners and the public to riparian space. 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 fairness is a factor in the determination of where you and your neighbor(s) can place your piers. The bad news is that in the event you and your neighbor(s) cannot agree to pier placement between yourselves, the final arbiter of your allotted space for your pier to effectuate your riparian rights is a judge in a court of law.

The DNR does not get involved in neighbor disputes as to pier placement and access to the water. However, the DNR created a document called the Pier Planner which gives insight into pier placement which is helpful to review. The DNR’s job is to ensure that the public’s right to the water is preserved and not diminished by a riparian owner’s pier placement – think too long or too big of a pier whereby it prohibits or restricts the public’s access to the water beyond a few feet from the shore. These few feet by the shore are reserved for the riparian owner to access the navigable water. Any water that is not navigable (i.e. too shallow or vegetated) is not navigable water and is not for the public’s use. Fun fact – the State of Wisconsin, through the DNR, protects the navigable waters of the State for the public’s use. This is called the Public Trust Doctrine and is found in the Wisconsin State Constitution. Wisconsinites have a long history of protecting access to and enjoyment of lakes and water bodies by the public.

There are endless nuances when it comes to the laws and regulations controlling pier placement, accessing navigable waters, the right to place a pier in your deed or easement, and shared access to a lake by way of a written easement. The attorneys at Axley have extensive experience educating and advocating for clients with pier disputes or questions as to their rights to place a pier, as well as litigating these issues. Put your (public) trust in our firm to provide you smooth sailing in the event you find yourself dealing with a pier placement dispute or if you just want to know what your rights are to place a pier.