Source: Sherman Publications

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Lake dispute tests 'keyhole' law

by Andrea Beaudoin

June 05, 2013

A subdivision's access to Deer Lake has neighbors steamed, and the issue's headed to court.

A subdivision of 27 homes, Deer Lake Knolls homeowners jointly own five acres along Deer Lake and has been keeping boats in the water since 1966 by installing seasonal docks.

The homeowners don't live on the lake themselves, so this creates a situation known as "keyholing," which Independence Township addressed with an ordinance in 2007. The Keyhole Ordinance requires a special land use for each new dock. Knolls residents put in a new dock last year, so the township cited them under the ordinance.

Township Supervisor, Pat Kittle said the case which is still under litigation, and set to go to court in July.

Township attorneys recently issued a letter threatening the Knolls' with a citation for any violation of the ordinance, $300 to start and another $500 a day plus court costs until the issue can be clarified.

Township officials met with the Michigan Department of Environmental on June 4 to clarify state laws, and decide how the township will move forward with the issue. Kittle said discussions with the MDEQ and township attorneys will include defining an outlot, permit requirements, state regulations and other issues.

Residents in the Deer Lake Property Owners Association (DLPOA), who live on the lake, cited safety studies that the 72-acre Deer Lake public lake can only safely handle four boats at a time. DLPOA represents 73 riparians, residents with homes directly on the lake. They claim Knolls residents have no right to dock boats at night or use the area for mooring without proper permits.

Knolls' Treasurer Kevin Sharkey said last year the Knolls combined three docks into one because they thought it was more aesthetically pleasing. Homeowners around the lake noticed the new dock, and accused the Knoll's of expanding and moving it farther into the lake to get by silt gathered from a nearby wetland.

Throughout the issue, the association said the Knolls' must get permission to use the lake and comply with wetland environmental codes, and it's the Knolls' responsibility to get the proper permits and the township's responsibility to make sure they're valid.

Sharkey said lake access privileges are reflected in Knolls' home prices and tax bills, the association is grandfathered in, and should not be required to seek a permit.

Kittle said the laws are sketchy and require clarification.

The township was ready to enter into a consent judgment on May 13 after the Knolls' provided the township with a plan for seasonal dockage and included the number of watercraft to be moored overnight for the 2013 watercraft season.

They didn't reach a consent agreement due to a disagreement about how to measure the length of the property.

Sharkey said not every home in the association owns a boat, and all the association is asking for is lake access, which they've had since 1966 with seasonal docks.

Kittle said they reviewed ordinances, conducted meetings, hired attorneys and listened to consultants regarding the issue. DLPOA claims the time and expense is because the Knolls' has failed to comply with Independence Township and state of Michigan ordinances.

DLPOA members said the Knolls' and the township must prove the docks existed legally for them tobe grandfathered. Kittle said the original Keyhole ordinance allows "grandfathering."

"Property owners, on and in surrounding neighborhoods on the lake, pay more in property taxes due to the higher property values on their houses," wrote Kittle.

Sharkey agrees with Kittle and said everyone that has purchased a home in the Knolls also paid extra to have lake access he also has photos from the 1970s showing the dock.

DLPOA members said they spent time and money keeping the lake clean and safe.

"We are absolutely behind keeping the lake pristine and controlling traffic on the lake," Sharkey responded.

DLPOA said the 73 riparian homes, homes directly on the water, "deserve the same protection against loss of value arising due to the overburdened use and resulting in diminished quality of the lake, the nuisance of a marina, the unsightliness and destruction of otherwise pastoral wetland views."

Kittle said the township works to ensure all laws are complied with "and the best interest of all township residents are being looked after."

Purna Surapaneni, who lives on the lake, said residents living in and around the lake pay their fair share of taxes.

"There certainly must be some kind of fairness and agreement made," he said.

He and his wife's only concern is cleanliness and lake quality.