Pier Placement Is More Than It A-pier(s)

April 11, 2016

This article was co-written by Law Clerk Tracy Murn and Attorney Don Murn. 

With toasty summer months comes an undeniable increase in boating recreation on Wisconsin’s abundant water bodies. But docking your boat may mean more than just putting your pier in and kicking back with a beer. Pier disputes are a common occurrence in Wisconsin, and waterfront property owners must be informed so they can insulate themselves from such messy disputes.  These claims typically involve disputes as to the riparian boundary each neighbor can legally occupy for the purpose of ingress and egress of boats into the waterway from their pier.  The riparian boundary is usually not questioned until a dispute between lakefront neighbors arises. By then it may be too late to resolve the issue amicably.

The first place to go when asking “where should I place my pier,” is to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Pier Planner. The Pier Planner is a guidance document that does a fantastic job of explaining the basics of the rights a lakefront property owner has when placing their pier in the water. However, it is only a guide. Only a court can determine riparian rights and the fact that someone does, or does not, have a permit for a pier issued by the DNR does NOT determine the riparian rights of arguing owners. An owner of property adjacent to a waterbody such as a river or lake is called a riparian owner. In Wisconsin, each riparian owner is entitled to have reasonable access to and from the shore to reach navigable water that is exclusive of every other owner.

When an argument over riparian rights (and pier placement) is raised, a court must determine whether the riparian rights of an owner have been interfered with.  To do so, a court must first consider the rights that each riparian owner enjoys. This is a fact-intensive determination. This, by its very nature, implicates legal intervention even in seemingly small disputes of water rights.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Wisconsin does not have a set rule for establishing the off-shore extension of shoreline properties. Although the description sounds complicated, the Court holds much power, pursuant to enabling case law, to determine which method to use to bring about a fair result for all neighboring parties.

There are 2 methods typically used in determining the zone in the water where a riparian owner may place a pier. The first method (extension method) is used when the property lines approximate a right angle with the shoreline, meaning that the shoreline is relatively straight, in which case the lot lines are extended straight out  into the water to the point of navigation and a pier may be placed anywhere within those extended lot lines. The second method (coterminous method) is used when the property lines do not meet the shore at a right angle, in which case the boundary is created by drawing right angles from the property lines rather than extending them straight out.  A pier may then be placed within that angled boundary. The coterminous method is generally used in properties on the shore of a bay or inlet.

If your water frontage or shoreline is extensive, you likely have much more latitude and space for determining where your pier can be placed without any question of interference.  The biggest issues arise when water frontage is small and lacking and lots are longer as they run perpendicular to the shoreline. This creates cramped shoreline space for piers and incites the most agitation among neighbors. Angling a pier, for example, on a cramped shoreline with many small lots competing for space, may force neighbors on both sides who would have otherwise placed their pier straight off their lot line, to angle their pier as the only way to allow them to gain access to and from the waterway in a boat or other watercraft.

The number of slips and watercrafts that are allowed for each riparian owner may also cause tensions between neighbors dealing with a cramped shoreline. With numerous problems arising from the simple decision of “where do I place my pier,” the best practice may be to talk to your neighbors if you are thinking of changing your pier placement from past years or adding watercrafts or additional slips to your pier configuration, so as to head off any disputes before they even arise. Also getting approval by the DNR of your pier placement if there are any concerns from neighbors may also be advisable. Being proactive with riparian right disputes is by far the best way to avoid much more hassle on the back end. If you have concerns about your riparian rights, contact the lawyers at Axley as we have experience in the area and can offer practical solutions.