Until January of this year waterfront property buyers could have reasonably expected to have the right to place a pier at the water’s edge of their property. A Supreme Court case settled a family dispute with the outcome property rights of landowners on a flowage. The legal perspective is explained in the link to attorney Tom Larson’s article in the WRA Real Estate Magazine, April 2018.
Tom explains Wisconsin has about 260 flowages around the state, and a flowage is a body of water created by a dam. There are different rights for flowages created by a lake, than those created by a river, or stream. The bed of the flowage created by the stream or river is generally owned by a private entity. This is the problem:
Envision you are buying lake front home on a flowage. At the water’s edge is a beautiful wooden pier with a boat slip, a lift, a pontoon boat, a fishing boat and a jet ski. All included in the sale. Are you sure you have legal right to keep this pier for your pleasure? Up through 2017 the presumption was you could. Because of the decision it is now critical that you know if the flowage was created by the damming of a lake, or a river or stream. If the lake bed of a flowage created by the dam on the river or stream is not owned by you, but a private entity, you can be prohibited from placing a pier which stands on the bed. However, it appears if the flowage was created by a dam on a lake, you are permitted to place the pier because the bed is not owned by a private entity but belongs to the government which permits legal access to the water for shoreline property owners.
Lakes are not all the same. When you go to look at property, know if the body of water is a flowage, and then know if the flowage was created by a dam on a river, stream, or a lake. It matters.