Resolving Property Disputes Affecting State Lands Often Takes Creative Solutions
March 13, 2008
For those of us who have a piece of property, we know that it is a task to manage and protect our land for our intended uses. Imagine what it is like for the Department of Natural Resources, which is responsible for managing nearly 4.5 million acres of land owned by the citizens of Michigan.
Protecting the boundaries of all the publicly owned property in our state parks and recreation areas, state game areas and state forest and ensuring appropriate public use can be a daunting task.
In fact, the DNR currently is faced with almost 1,600 known encroachments on public land that range from landscaping, signage and gates to the illegal placement of roads, septic tanks and even homes.>
Such private use of public land prevents Michigan's citizens and visitors from using the land which their taxes and user fees have helped purchase and protect.
Most often, private landowners might plant a garden, build a shed or a road to get to their cabins, without the benefit of a survey or based on unproven, handed down information, said DNR Trespass Specialist Lori Underwood.
"Many of these encroachments are accidental rather than intentional; however, the resulting infringements on public land still have to be resolved, regardless of how they came about," Underwood said.
In most cases, the preferred method of resolution is removal of the encroaching item. Gates, signs and gardens can be removed fairly easily, but, occasionally, the DNR will find it is in the best interest of the public and the resources to sell or exchange property with the responsible party to resolve an encroachment.
However, this method of resolution includes a thorough review by DNR staff that often is lengthy and can be costly to the responsible party and the DNR.
Because resolution of encroachments on state land can be controversial and difficult, Underwood said having an open mind and a willingness to look at creative solutions is instrumental in resolving these encroachments in a timely, reasonable and legal manner.
"We need to be flexible with our resolution methods, while still working within the constraints of resource management and protection, as well as the confines of the law," she said.
In 2007, staff from the DNR Forest, Mineral and Fire Management Division worked to finally resolve a long-standing encroachment on state forest land in Arenac County, which involved more than 10 years of illegal dumping of garbage and building materials on this parcel of public land.
Working with adjacent private land owners, volunteers and the Department of Environmental Quality, nearly eight acres of public land soon will be cleaned up and restored. Instrumental in this cleanup effort was grant money from the Adopt-a-Forest program for removal of almost 300 tires and the proper disposal of tons of illegally dumped trash.
Although additional work needs to be done at the Arenac County site, the cooperative effort between the DEQ, DNR, volunteers and private property owners has opened the doors for future collaborative efforts to resolve other long-standing encroachments throughout the state.
"The goal of the DNR is to return these areas to their natural condition," Underwood said. "Once that is achieved, the land can remain open for public use and can be used for a variety of outdoor recreational activities."
The DNR encourages individuals to assist in these efforts by remembering the following tips when purchasing property and when living next to state land:
- Know your property lines. Sometimes property has been passed down through generations and the property lines are not always clear. Contract with a licensed surveyor to conduct a land survey so you know your legal boundaries.
- Purchase title insurance (required by most lenders). If there ever is a question of ownership, you may be better protected against loss.
- If you are considering purchasing property that is landlocked, be sure that you have written agreements (legal easements) in place to access the land BEFORE purchasing. This is one of the most common issues that comes before the DNR, and can be very difficult to amend.
To learn more about the DNR's trespass resolution program, provide suggestions on resolving encroachments on state land or volunteer for future cleanups, contact Lori Underwood at (989) 275-5151, ext. 2100 or at email@example.com.