Aug. 2, 2011 – The District II Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently clarified that the judge, not the jury, decides what method to apply in determining riparian boundary rights between disputing parties.
In Manlick v. Loppnow, 2010AP2034 (Aug. 2, 2011), the appeals court also clarified that a trial judge has discretion to choose the appropriate method to apply based on equity principles.
The riparian rights dispute at issue stems from a spat between neighboring lakefront property owners on Pewaukee Lake. The neighbors kept their piers, and the harmony, on the north end of their respective property lines until 2007. That year, the Loppnows (north neighbors) moved their pier to the south end, abutting the pier kept by the Manlicks (south neighbors) on the north end of their property.
The Loppnows moved the location of their pier to prevent the Manlicks from docking their boat on the north side of their pier, believing that such boat placement infringed on the Loppnows’ riparian rights extending into the lake.
The Manlicks filed suit in 2008, believing the Loppnows’ new pier placement infringed upon their riparian boundary rights, asserting conversion, private nuisance, and trespass. The Manlicks appealed after the trial court dismissed the claims and applied the coterminous method to determine riparian boundary rights in favor of the Loppnows.
The appeals court affirmed, rejecting the Manlicks’ argument that the trial court applied the wrong method in determining the parties’ riparian boundary, and in any event, a jury must decide what method to apply.
Of the three general methods for determining riparian boundaries, the court applied the so-called coterminous method, advocated for by the Loppnows. The coterminous method is used “’if the boundary lines on land are not at right angles with the shore but approach the shore at obtuse or acute angles. …” Nosek v. Stryker, 103 Wis. 2d 633, 635, 309 N.W.2d 868 (Ct. App. 1981).
The appeals court agreed that, based on shoreline descriptions and testimony from a land surveyor, this method was the most fair and equitable to apply. The appeals court also rejected the Manlicks’ argument that they had a constitutional right to let a jury decide which method the court should apply in determining the riparian boundary.
“The parties fail to cite to any case, and we could not uncover any authority to support the Manlicks’ assertion that the question is properly directed to a jury,” wrote Judge Kitty Brennan.