Township and County Civil Rights Liability for Use of Traverse Lines in Subdivisions

Local governments (counties, townships, cities and villages) in Michigan must approve subdivision plats
before they can be recorded. This statutory plat approval requirement assures its citizens that the government has duly considered the rights and obligations of individuals whose lots are to be located within or in proximiy to the plat. When a plat is made that includes waterfront lots, traverse lines are drawn on the plat near the edge of the water in accord with Michigan statutes. The purpose of these traverse lines are to indicate that lots within the plat are ‘riparian’ and, as such, extend the ‘supposed water body ownership’ of such lots beyond the lines of the plat and into the water body to its center line.

This type of ownership of a water body to the middle is known as ‘riparian’. It provides a right of access at all times to the water, the right to build a dock, moor boats and to exclude others from doing so over or on the lake bottom to which the riparian interests attach. It is an extremely valuable property interest. The aforementioned Michigan local governments have attempted to assure many thousands of waterfront owners, by virtue of the inclusion of traverse lines near the water’s edge, that their ownership includes riparian rights to the middle of the water body.

However, despite the inclusion of these traverse lines in various plats, many thousands of lot owners in those plats do not in fact have riparian rights. The land beneath many waters in Michigan is not riparian because it was surveyed and sold as land by the federal government to private owners centuries ago. Therefore, as a result of these traverse lines which the local governments have approved, lot owners not only own their own lot, but, by virtue of the traverse lines, supposedly own lake bottom that others own in fee simple. These lands just happen to be covered with water. The local government is, in essence, telling people that they own property of someone else.

Therefore, the township and county which approved these subdivision plats have an absolute obligation to amend them by deleting erroneous traverse lines. Of course, in doing so, these governmental entities must acknowledge that these lot owners do not have riparian rights, that they own the lots, only, and that the bottomland is owned by others.

Review and approval of subdivisions by these government entities is required in accord with the statutory sections. The result is that these townships and counties and/or other local units of government are liable under 42 USC 1983, “Civil Action for Deprivation of Rights” to the affected owners who have been erroneously assured that titles are accurately reflected in accord with the U.S. Constitution and federal statutes and case law. However, selling the bottomland of strangers beyond the traverse line as riparian property is a civil rights violation of the U.S Constitution and federal statutes which arguably warrants significant awards of compensation, as well as punitive damages and attorney fees that the local governments must absorb. On the other hand, damages owed by townships and counties to lot owners are significant, also, whether there are constitutional claims involved or not. Actions under such legal theories as slander of title and intentional or innocent misrepresentation appear viable, with damages being the difference in value of the lot with riparian rights which was assured to them versus the value of that same lot without them, as well as possible punitive damages and attorney fees