Property owners celebrate winning case for boating rights

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WATERSMEET, Mich. (WLUC) - Property owners at a remote lake have defeated the United States Forest Service and won the right to use motorboats on Crooked Lake. A federal appeals court said the Forest Service can't override existing property rights, including the right to adjacent water use.

The issue dates back to 1992, when the Forest Service banned sailboats and houseboats on Crooked Lake, a part of the Sylvania Wilderness Area. Kathy Stupak-Thrall, one of 10 lakefront property owners, challenged the ban in court, and lost. But when the Forest Service went on to ban all motorboats in 1995, she filed a second lawsuit and won.

In 2013, however, the Forest Service was still banning motorboats for all the other lakefront property owners, two of whom took up the issue again. Pam and David Herr brought the case all the way to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

“We love this lake. We've come here many years,” Pam Herr said. “After many years, we were able to buy property and we wanted to use our riparian rights. We have always been respecting of the lake, of the other people who are on the lake.”

In a 2-1 decision, the court said the Herrs were entitled to reasonable use of Crooked Lake because property rights include the right to reasonably use lakes on or adjacent the property. Recreational boating is reasonable use, according to Michigan judicial precedent.

“I didn't see how it would get any plainer than if you own property, the rights go with the property,” David Herr said. “It seems so simple to me.”

The Forest Service argued that designated wilderness area and motorboats were mutually exclusive. The property owners disagreed.

“Many times and many places, not just here, where there is private property that abuts a wilderness area,” previous plaintiff Kathy Stupak-Thrall said. “It has always worked out in the past and it can work here as well.”

Now that they've won the cases, the property owners could sue for civil damages, but they said they just wanted to move on.

“That effort is time consuming, emotionally roller coasting up and down,” Stupak-Thrall said. “I may just want to get on with my life and enjoy my grandchildren and my children, of course, and just finally enjoy life.”

The decision goes into effect immediately.

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