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DNR's Trespass Resolution Program Preserves Land for Generations to Enjoy
August 23, 2007
It's something many of us have done at one time or another.
While mowing the lawn or clearing brush from a trail on our property, we make the perimeter of our yard just a little bigger or the trail a little wider.
Although such actions may be a good way to increase your living space when you own the property, for private landowners who live adjacent to public property, there sometimes are unintended consequences that result in trespass.
The Department of Natural Resources Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Division has staff dedicated to helping neighbors of public land resolve these issues before they escalate.
According to DNR Land Use Specialist Lori Underwood, there are nearly 1,600 known "trespasses" on the 3.9 million acres of state land owned by Michigan's citizens.
These encroachments include easy-to-remedy issues such as continued mowing for personal use, signage intended to make the property look closed off to the public, storage of personal items and gates that restrict access to large tracts of land intended for public use.
But the DNR also must deal with more complex issues, which include entire homes or other structures built on public land, junk yards that have spread out over multiple acres, and septic tanks and drain fields that lap over onto state land.
"Not only do these encroachments cause liability concerns, in many instances they also prohibit Michigan citizens and visitors from using the very land for which their taxes help purchase and maintain," Underwood said.
People who would not consider polluting a river or poaching wildlife sometimes find themselves degrading the public trust in another way -- by illegally attempting to take over public land.
Many situations are accidental, such as a misunderstanding or disagreement over property boundaries; but some occur with total disregard for property lines.
People who have built on public land or continue to utilize state land for access or storage after being notified could face penalties of fines and/or jail time.
Concerned citizens have wondered why the DNR cannot just sell or sign off on these small tracts of public land as opposed to forcing removal of buildings or other structures.
Unfortunately, the fix is not so easy.
The land often is inherited with stipulations attached or purchased with restricted funds that require the land stay open for public use. In addition, state land policies are in place in order to maintain the ease of management activities.
Irregular boundary lines also make managing forest and wildlife resources much more difficult.
"State land with irregular boundaries increases the opportunity for encroachments and is more difficult for forest visitors to identify as being open to the public," said Underwood.
Trespass sometimes can be resolved by a three-to-one land exchange or sale. This may occur when the adjacent landowner is willing to trade private land for the state land they are interested in or purchase the state land at an increased value.
Such options, however, must meet strict criteria and are the exception to trespass resolution rather than the rule.
Underwood said these land transactions go to the DNR's Land Exchange Review Committee and often are rejected because property exchanges or sales that involve breaking up parcels of dedicated state-owned land generally do not offer any advantages to all citizens of Michigan.
"The DNR is entrusted to manage lands for public use and protection of natural resources," Underwood said, "so the department must make public benefit and resource protection its priority over individual or private use."
Some adjacent landowners also mistakenly believe they have "adverse possession" rights or are "grandfathered" because they have been using the state land as their own for years.
"This is rarely the case," Underwood said, "because the tructure would have had to have been built prior to 1973."
She said the DNR uses aerial photos, maps, historic records and permits to confirm the age of the structure.
The goal of the DNR is to return these areas to their natural condition. Once achieved, the land can remain open for public use and be used for various recreational activities such as hunting, fishing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and berry picking.
Another issue of concern is that when private landowners advertise their property for sale, the ad typically will highlight the fact the listed property is "adjacent to public land." The potential buyer is lead to believe this an asset because it's unlikely the nearby public land will ever be developed.
But the DNR cautions, like the old adage, let the buyer beware.
The DNR suggests these tips for those who are considering purchasing and those who already own land next to land owned by Michigan's citizens.
One common theme when working with property owners is that they would like to leave the legacy of property to their children.
"One of the best gifts you can give your children is land that has no encumbrances or pending boundary concerns," said Lynne Boyd, DNR Forest, Mineral and Fire Management chief.
For more information about the DNR's trespass resolution program, contact Lori Underwood at (989) 275-5151, ext. 2100 or at email@example.com.
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