Gimme Shelter: Dock Rights and the Reasonable Use Doctrine

In 2012 I bought a small vacant lakeshore parcel on Medicine Lake in Plymouth in order to install a dock and park a boat.

The resulting regulatory and neighbor driven firestorm that rained down upon me as a result–and the coverage by the media was intense. The so called “war” with Plymouth and the neighbors made the front page of the Star Tribune, the local papers, and the 10 o’clock news on several stations.

Plymouth’s stance completely disregarded Federal jurisdiction on Navigable Waters of the United States and the Statutes regulating the promulgation of surface water zoning by municipalities.

Of course the property had been for sale on the MLS for a number of years, and the two adjacent neighbors did not and would not acquire the property from my predecessor in title.
City Staff in Plymouth misunderstood the issue, thinking that water / riparian rights derived from owning riparian land can be regulated by land use rules and not surface water rules.

The bottom line is that whether you own an inch or a mile of the ordinary high water mark on a navigable body of water, you have acquired certain water rights including the right to wharf. Because of my experience I receive calls from all over the State seeking help understanding these specialized property interests.
As one example, recently an appraiser sought my help in estimating the value of the Minnetonka Boatworks boat slips on Wayzata Bay—likely some of the most valuable boat slips in the State. More recently a couple in Ottertail County reached out to learn more about diverging lot lines and dock placement in a neighbor dispute.
Reasonable Use Doctrine and neighbor disputes
The Reasonable Use Doctrine can be studied by neighbors in a dispute by reading the article What Can a Riparian Proprietor Do? By Stanley V. Kinyon which was published in 1936. While I won’t go into all the details of the article, it states, “Every landowner in using his land must have regard for his neighbor… …Although riparian proprietors on a stream are not tenants in common… …they have a common interest in the stream. This fact increases the regard which they must have for each other’s interests.”
Simplified, I view the entire article as a repetition of the Golden Rule for docks—do unto others as you would like to have done unto you. The only way to win a dock dispute between neighbors is to compromise and try and get along.
The sure fire way to lose is to not compromise and spend time, energy, and resources fighting via public hearings, legal counsel and the courts. If you need legal advice in this area, please seek out your attorney of choice but try and work it out.
Lake Minnetonka dock regulations
The State of Minnesota established the Lake Minnetonka Conservation District in 1967 to regulate the use of the lake and prevent pollution. The LMCD has regulatory power over docks on Lake Minnetonka. The Board of Directors is made up of appointees from the 14 communities that border Lake Minnetonka. The board conducts business much like a City Council does. A dedicated staff oversees the work.
The LMCD regulates dock length, setbacks from adjacent properties, authorized dock use areas, watercraft types and density, boat houses, canopies, etc. Grandfathered uses can and do override some of these regulations.
State of Minnesota dock / surface water regulations
Dock regulations must be accomplished via surface water ordinances according to Minnesota §86B.205, meaning a county or municipality wishing to regulate docks beyond standard DNR guidelines must do so by passing surface water regulations locally. The surface water regulations then must be approved by the Commissioner of Natural resources in order to be valid.
Dock rights can be confusing whether you are a private citizen or a regulatory body. When in doubt ask lots of questions, seek out legal advice from a licensed attorney, and find a Realtor who has studied the issue extensively. Experience isn’t expensive, it’s priceless.
Dan Gustafson is a licensed Realtor with Coldwell Banker Burnet in Wayzata. For more information visit

Daniel Gustafson & Elisha Gustafson Realtors
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