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Marina Walkway Owner Entitled to Lease Bottomlands


In 2001, Harbor Club executed a quitclaim deed conveying an amenities parcel to a group of condominium associations, including Bay Cliff Estates Condominium Association and other plaintiff associations. Subsequently, both parties sought to renew the bottomlands lease.

Michigan law requires that a bottomland lessee must be “a riparian or littoral owner or owners of property touching or situated opposite the [land or water area subject to the lease] or an occupant of that land.” Both parties claimed that they were riparian owners by claiming ownership of the walkway. The state declined to identify which party was the riparian owner and recommended that the parties seek a determination by court order.

Harbor Club sought summary disposition of the dispute. The parties submitted multiple deeds, surveys, legal descriptions, and supporting material to the trial court. After careful examination of the documents, it concluded that the walkway was upland riparian property owned by Harbor Club. The associations appealed.

Harbor Club contended that the associations’ quiet title action was untimely, but the appeals court found that the action was filed within the 15-year statute of limitations applicable to the claim. Turning to the legal issues of the appeal, the court considered the following: (1) whether the master deed was ambiguous; (2) whether the exception clause in the master deed operated to retain Harbor Club’s ownership of the walkway; (3) whether the quitclaim deed was ambiguous and (4) whether the quitclaim deed conveyed the walkway to the associations.

The associations alleged that the master deed was ambiguous on the ground that the excepted property required a reference to an ambiguous legal description in the draft master deed of the proposed Yacht Basin property. The court disagreed, noting that they had presented no evidence demonstrating that the Yacht Basin draft controlled the interpretation of the master deed exception clause. As Harbor Club had pointed out, the master deed expressly incorporated the survey plan, site plan, and drawings that were recorded with the deed. In contrast, the Yacht Basin draft postdated the master deed by almost one year and was neither signed nor recorded. The survey plan and the site plan that were incorporated into the master deed provided sufficient descriptions of the excepted property; thus, no reference to the Yacht Basin draft was necessary.

The associations argued, in the alternative, that if the master deed was not ambiguous, the plain language of the deed precluded Harbor Club from claiming fee simple title to the walkway. They noted that the exception referred only to the proposed Yacht Basin property, which included only leasehold and bottomland interests.

The court held that their argument rested on an incorrect premise that the walkway was bottomland property. Pointing out that, although it was included within the metes and bounds description of the bottomland lease, the professional surveyor’s affidavit established that the walkway was upland riparian property to which Harbor Club could hold title. The exception clause in the lease operated to retain Harbor Club’s title to the walkway.

The associations next argued that even if the master deed enabled Harbor Club to retain title to the walkway, it had subsequently conveyed that title to the associations in the quitclaim deed. Again, the court disagreed, finding no ambiguity in the quitclaim deed. The property surveyor specifically attested that the amenities parcel terminated on the landward side of the walkway. Given this landward boundary, the quitclaim deed conveying the amenities parcel did not convey an interest in the walkway.

The court affirmed the trial court’s findings.