Tag: bottomlands

FLOW’s Statement on Negotiations Between Gov. Whitmer and Enbridge on Line 5 Tunnel, Pipeline

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                                                              April 17, 2019

Liz Kirkwood, Executive Director                                                                 Email: [email protected]
Office: (231) 944-1568                                                                                     Cell: (570) 872-4956

Jim Olson, President, Cell: 231-499-8831                                                   Email: [email protected]
FLOW (For Love of Water), Traverse City, MI                                           Web: www.FLOWforWater.org


FLOW Statement on Negotiations Between Gov. Whitmer and Enbridge on Line 5 Tunnel, Pipeline


Traverse City, Mich. –  FLOW (For Love of Water) issued the following statement on the disclosure that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Enbridge Energy will discuss expediting construction of an oil tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac while the company’s troubled Line 5 pipelines continue operation in the Straits:

“We are concerned about this development. Every day that the Line 5 pipelines continue to operate is a risk to our precious Great Lakes,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “State government’s efforts should first and foremost be devoted to shutting the pipeline down, not negotiating its continued operation while a tunnel is explored and possibly built.

“Now that the Governor has chosen to engage in this process, we hope and trust it will be a transparent one. It is unfortunate that her predecessor engaged in secret talks on agreements with Enbridge, and the lame-duck Legislature was so eager to benefit Enbridge that it passed a sloppy statute that the Attorney General ruled unconstitutional. We are confident this Governor will operate differently,” Kirkwood said.

“We are also hopeful that the Governor will restore and apply the rule of law to Enbridge’s operations in the Straits. Any easement or lease of Great Lakes bottomlands and any private control for a 99-year tunnel by a private company like Enbridge for a private operation must be authorized under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA),” said Jim Olson, President of FLOW.

“The GLSLA ensures a public review, analysis, participation, and a determination under standards that protect the public trust in the waters of the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them from privatization and impairment. It also ensures a thorough evaluation of feasible and prudent alternatives, including ones that do not involve use or control of the Great Lakes. No agreement between the executive branch and a private company can override this fundamental law,” Olson said.


Bypassing, and Now Restoring, the Rule of Law on Line 5

After last year’s election, newly chosen leaders and the old guard with a few weeks left in Lansing rushed in opposite directions. The Snyder administration and legislators intensified their unprecedented, legally questionable attacks on water, the environment, and public health during a lame-duck feeding frenzy.

The new guard, Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, meanwhile formed transition teams and appointed cabinet members, new department heads, and staff to reestablish Michigan’s constitutional mandate that the state shall protect the paramount public concern in the Great Lakes, groundwater, and public health from pollution and harm arising out of water crises like statewide PFAS surface and well water contamination, Detroit drinking water shutoffs, lead and Legionnaire’s Disease in Flint water, and the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

The combination of these crises manifests a far deeper crisis in state government—a breach of trust in the oath of office of state officials to uphold the constitution and rule of law. State leaders under the Snyder Administration and many elected officials deliberately ignored the constitutional and legal mandates and instead chose to serve special private interests.

FLOW’s Commitment: Protecting Public Waters from Pollution and Private Control

Here at FLOW, we are increasing our efforts and projects to protect the paramount public trust concern in water, the environment, and public health through our Campaign for Fresh Water launched last fall. One of these projects is to bring an end to the high risk of extreme damage to the Great Lakes, tribal fishing, drinking water, property, businesses, citizens, and Michigan’s economy from the continued operation of the decaying, 66-year-old Line 5 oil pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac.

FLOW has redoubled our efforts in concert with a large public outcry and movement to decommission or end Line 5, collaborating with Oil & Water Don’t Mix and many local and statewide environmental groups, like National Wildlife Federation and Groundwork Center, individuals, families, businesses, communities, elected officials, and the leadership and legal challenges brought by Michigan’s Indian tribes with treaty rights in the Straits, Straits of Mackinac Alliance, and the City of Mackinac Island.

The former Snyder Administration and state environmental and natural resource agencies, former Attorney General Schuette, and a core of pro-Enbridge legislators in a flurry of agreements, laws, and actions, suspended the state Constitution and rule of law to convey and appropriate public trust lands and waters for Enbridge to build a private oil tunnel for a new Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac for another 99 years. Worse, these state officials and leaders purported to guarantee Enbridge to keep operating and using Great Lakes bottomlands for its dangerous existing Line 5 for another 10 years—without the required authorization and occupancy or use agreements required by the 1955 Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and public trust law that apply to the soils and waters of the Great Lakes.

This is the year of reckoning for Enbridge’s Line 5. It is time to unpack and nullify the unilateral deals made with Enbridge by the Snyder administration and confirmed by the legislature without following the constitution and rule of law.

This is the year of reckoning for Enbridge’s Line 5. It is time to unpack and nullify the unilateral deals made with Enbridge by the Snyder administration and confirmed by the legislature without following the constitution and rule of law. The administration and legislature signed off on a covert deal that would let Enbridge Energy continue pumping 540,000 barrels of oil a day (bbl/day; 1 barrel equals 42 U.S. gallons) through the dual lines laid in 1953 in the Straits and Great Lakes with a catastrophic worse-case damage scenario in the tens of billions of dollars. Unaccountably, the administration and legislature did so despite Great Lakes law in Michigan that prohibits the transfer or occupancy of the state-owned waters and the soils beneath them for private purposes.

Reward for Failure: After Enbridge’s 2010 Kalamazoo Pipeline Disaster, Michigan Officials Doubled Enbridge’s Oil Pumping across Michigan, and then Locked in an Oil Tunnel Deal for 99 Years

How is it that the State ended up rewarding Enbridge for a spill from Line 6B of a million gallons of crude oil and billions of dollars of damage to the Kalamazoo River system? While the State worked with Enbridge to address the damage from its unprecedented 2010 spill, it granted Enbridge a gigantic windfall by incrementally approving, from 2012 to the present, the doubling of Enbridge’s pipeline capacity and oil transport through the Great Lakes. In effect, while Canadians continued to block pipeline projects to transport crude oil to the country’s coasts, and citizens in the U.S. derailed the Keystone XL in the West, the Snyder Administration and former Attorney General Schuette orchestrated a “Great Lakes XL” that is even larger.

And then in 2018, Snyder, in his term’s waning months, and the lame-duck legislature gave away and endangered the Great Lakes to Enbridge, by locking in a 99-year sweetheart deal for Enbridge to build an oil tunnel to convey Line 5 under the Straits and granting Enbridge the cover to keep operating the existing failing Line 5 that threatens tens of billions in damages. On top of this deal, the Administration totally failed to even consider climate change impacts and risks and the rapid shift toward the new renewable energy economy that will leave the state with a billion-dollar dinosaur.

Here’s how the calculated actions of Snyder, Schuette, and their cohorts bypassed legal requirements in seven sweeping steps, along with some advice from FLOW to Michigan’s new leadership at the start of their journey to reestablish the rule of law and rollback the mess:

  1. Bit by Bit, Doubling the Oil Flow on Line 6b after Enbridge’s Kalamazoo River Disaster

First, from approximately 2011 to 2014, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) approved a series of Enbridge applications to replace short segments, rather than a single application to replace the whole portion, that had the effect of doubling the design capacity of most of Line 6b pipeline from 400,000 to 800,000 barrels (bbl)/day. Allowing the MPSC to review shorter pipeline segments avoided the alternative analysis on the entire Line 6b from Indiana to Sarnia, Canada. 

MPSC rules and decisions, and Michigan’s environmental laws, require a review of likely impacts and alternatives to the entire length of the pipeline. Had this rule been followed, the MPSC would have been required to look at all of the Enbridge lines in Michigan, and determine the overall needs of the public necessity and needs of the company, short and long term, and the alternative or best route or location that would best meet that need with the least impact and risk to water, environment, and communities. That would have included a review of the need for Line 5, including the risks to the Straits of Mackinac and Great Lakes. It also would have required a consideration of the future need for crude oil through Enbridge’s system in Michigan in light of falling crude oil demands caused by the rapid and imminent shift to renewable energy to reduce the effects of climate change.

  1. Increasing Line 5’s Oil Flow in the Straits by 80 Percent

Second, during the same time frame, the MPSC approved the location and installation of new and changed pump stations and anti-friction fluid injection facilities for Line 5, including the Straits segment, so Enbridge could implement its final increment to result in the increase the oil transport capacity of Line 5 from 300,000 to 540,0000 bbl/day.  Again, the MPSC did not evaluate the need, impacts, risks, or alternatives to this overall 80-percent increase in flow volume of crude oil.  Once more, the State allowed Enbridge to avoid the law that required a full evaluation of the purpose.  Had the rule of law been followed in the doubled Line 6B and expanded flow volume in Line 5, the State through proper notice, public input, and evidence would have been required to look at overall impacts, risks, and alternatives and need for the Enbridge system, and Line 5 could have been decommissioned in an orderly manner in exchange for the doubling of Line 6B.

  1. Saddling, Elevating, and Damaging Line 5 in the Straits

Third, although not disclosed by Enbridge until 2016, Enbridge installed saddle supports screwed into the lakebed to support a failing design of Line 5 in the Straits. The original design specified in the 1953 easement and built in the Straits called for the heavy steel dual lines in the Straits segment to be laid on the bottom on the lakebed. If wave action and currents scoured more than 75 feet of soils beneath a segment of the pipes, the company was required to stabilize the line by closing the existence of the spans.

While not disclosed until 15 years later, when filling or grout bags failed, Enbridge in 2001 started installing saddle supports screwed into the lakebed to elevate the heavy dual pipes above the lakebed. Initially, there were 16 supports, more and more were added, and between 2016 and 2018, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) permitted Enbridge to install more than 70 saddle supports, bringing the total to 200 supports, which has resulted in a suspension of three miles of an aged line above the lakebed.

The DEQ shrouded Enbridge’s failing Line 5 risks and redesign by characterizing the supports as a “repair” and “maintenance.”  This not only covered up the redesign but confined the legally required impact and alternative analysis to a 50-foot radius of lakebed around each support.  As a result, the DEQ ignored and allowed Enbridge to escape the comprehensive review of potential impacts and alternatives to the failing condition of the outdated line required by the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act.

In addition, Enbridge’s installation of the saddles has damaged Line 5’s anti-corrosion protective coating, a fact that the company hid from Michigan officials for three years during its negotiations to install additional anchor supports.

  1. Signing Side Deals for Another 99 Years of Line 5 in the Straits

Fourth, Governor Snyder, DEQ and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) signed two agreements with Enbridge between October and the end of December 2018 that purported to transfer state public trust bottomlands and soils of the Straits so Enbridge can build a tunnel for a new 99-year pipeline. The tunnel and new line will take 10 years or more to construct. Until the new line is operating, Enbridge is authorized to continue operating the failing design of the existing aged line.

Under the GLSLA, easements, leases, uses, or improvements on, in, under the state-owned public trust soils of the Great Lakes are prohibited unless authorized within two narrow exceptions: (1) it is for a public purpose, related to navigation, boating, fishing, swimming, or drinking water; and (2) it will not threaten an impairment of the public trust in the waters, soils, or these public trust uses.

Under the GLSLA, easements, leases, uses, or improvements on, in, under the state-owned public trust soils of the Great Lakes are prohibited unless authorized within two narrow exceptions: (1) it is for a public purpose, related to navigation, boating, fishing, swimming, or drinking water; and (2) it will not threaten an impairment of the public trust in the waters, soils, or these public trust uses.  The two agreements that commit leasing, easements, or use of waters and soils beneath the Straits do not require Enbridge to obtain authorization or findings under the GLSLA. In other words, the Governor and his agencies agreed to transfer state public trust lands for the tunnel and the private 99-year new line, and at the same time allow the continued use of public bottomlands for the existing line, without obtaining the authorization required by law.

  1. Ramming through a New Law to Transfer State Public Lands to Canada’s Enbridge without Proper Authorization

Fifth, when the Legislature ram-rodded the passage of Public Act 359 and Governor Snyder signed it into law in late December, they created a corridor authority to sign the tunnel agreement, easements, leases and other commitments for Canadian-based Enbridge to take over the public’s state-owned waters and soils and build the tunnel and its new pipeline. On its face, Act 359 transfers or commits to the authority these state public trust bottomlands without requiring authorization of the conveyance under the GLSLA. Under U.S. Supreme Court and Michigan Supreme Court decisions, any disposition, occupancy, or use must obtain authorization based on findings of no private purpose and no impairment of waters, soils, fishing, navigation or other public rights.  Otherwise, it is prohibited.

  1. Bypassing State Law and Alternatives to Risking the Great Lakes

Sixth, the easement for a public utility, after approval by the MPSC, such as the tunnel or the 99-year lease, or the continued operation of the existing Line 5 in the Straits, must be obtained from the state DNR in addition to the authorization under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act. Because the easements involve public trust bottomlands, they cannot be granted unless authorized by the GLSLA or unless based on the standards of the common law of public trust, which requires the comprehensive review of potential impacts and alternatives to the total or substantial change of the outdated dual lines in the soils and open waters of the Great Lakes.  

  1. Appropriating Public Property for Enbridge’s Private Purpose

Seventh, the Michigan Constitution, Art IV, Sec. 30, prohibits the appropriation of public property of the State for private or local purposes. An appropriation occurs where the disposition or transfer of state property, like the public trust waters and soils of the Great Lakes, is granted without findings or full and fair compensation—that is, where the transfer is for free, little consideration, or less than the full public trust value of these waters and soils.

In short, our former Governor, DEQ and DNR Directors, the MPSC, and former Attorney General suspended wholesale the rule of law for the benefit of Enbridge’s massive increase in the volume of crude oil through our Great Lakes State for private gain.

Restoring the Rule of Law and the Paramount Place of the Water and the Great Lakes in Michigan’s Future Prosperity

The first order of business for our new leaders—Governor Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel—is to restore the rule of law on Line 5 in Michigan, and they are off to a good start.  The high risks and more than $6 billion catastrophe from a release of crude oil in the Great Lakes and an estimated additional $45 billion in damage to shipping, steel production, and jobs are unacceptable by any sane measure.  

The public deserves better, the law and state Constitution demand it, and we applaud and urge on the governor and attorney general’s steps to bring Line 5 to a prompt and orderly decommissioning and closure.

Governor Whitmer should direct her new directors of the DEQ and DNR and Attorney General Nessel should direct her lead attorneys on Line 5 and the Great Lakes to conduct a thorough and careful review and reevaluation of the Snyder Administration’s and former Attorney General Schuette’s failure to follow the public trust, GLSLA, and Michigan Constitution in the handling of the entire Enbridge Line 5 controversy.

Buoyed by the work of so many organizations, tribes, communities, individuals and families, and the majority of citizens who elected them, the Governor and Attorney General Nessel and their administrations have a mandate and opportunity to restore water, environment, and public health as paramount in Michigan. The public deserves better, the law and state Constitution demand it, and we applaud and urge on the governor and attorney general’s steps to bring Line 5 to a prompt and orderly decommissioning and closure. 

Jim Olson, President and Founder

Enbridge has alternatives within its pipeline system to meet all of its and Michigan’s needs without using the Straits and the Great Lakes.  There are several good solutions to assure continued delivery of propane to rural areas in the Upper Peninsula. It may even save Enbridge and its shareholders from shouldering a future stranded asset, as the need for Alberta crude oil, including through Line 5, will plummet in the next decade with the rise of the new renewable energy economy backed by public demand.


Make More Michigan Underwater Parks

Michigan’s state park system is considered one of the finest in the nation.  Dating back to 1917, the system includes 103 parks and recreation areas that sustain more than 25 million annual visits.

But there’s another, smaller park system, and it’s underwater.

The underwater preserve system is also on public land – the nearly 40,000 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland, all of which is held in trust for the people of Michigan by state government.  The system now includes 13 preserves encompassing 7,200 square miles of lakebed.

Our bottomland preserve law was essentially enacted to protect shipwrecks and promote sport diving, and it has been a success in meeting those objectives.  But the system could be broader in scope.  The state law authorizing these preserves says they can be established wherever a bottomland contains “a single watercraft of significant historical value, includes 2 or more abandoned watercraft, or contains other features of archaeological, historical, recreational, geological, or environmental significance.”  Designation then leads to protection.

There is plenty to protect on Michigan’s lakebed, including ancient forests, unusual geology and biology, fish habitat, and perhaps even archaeological evidence of aboriginal communities.

Federal law provides for marine sanctuaries.  Michigan is the only Great Lakes state containing one, the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary, although there have been proposals for sanctuaries in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and New York state waters.  The current administration in Washington does not support new sanctuaries.  Thus, it makes even more sense for Michigan to identify, and fund protection of, its underwater resources.


FLOW Demands State Reject Latest Enbridge Ploy


In comments submitted to state officials Friday, FLOW is urging state regulators to deny a bid by Enbridge Energy to install 48 new anchor supports on dangerous Line 5 at the Straits of Mackinac while evading scrutiny of alternatives that would protect the environment.

Enbridge’s latest request, if approved, would bring the number of anchor brackets to 198 that the governments have allowed the company to install since the early 2000s — completely changing the pipelines’ design. 

Structurally, this means that approximately 3 miles of pipeline are elevated in public trust waters above the bottomlands. But the design approved by the state in the 1950s had the pipeline resting in a trench on the lake bottom. 

“The fact that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers continue to approve Enbridge’s anchor supports on the lakebed of the Lake Michigan as ‘repair’ and ‘maintenance’ is simply untenable,” FLOW says in its comments. “The highly increased risks of and alternatives to a completely modified design under both state and federal permitting laws requires a new agreement of occupancy and permits” under several laws.

“And given the recent anchor dents in the twin lines and rupture of the electrical line and release of toxic fluids, the risks to the Great Lakes are totally unacceptable,” FLOW said.

FLOW called on the state and federal governments to require that Enbridge:

  1. file a full and comprehensive application including a study of potential effects and feasible and prudent alternatives to Line 5 in the Straits in its entirety;
  2. suspend the flow of oil in Line 5 unless and until Enbridge files such application and evidence and obtains proper occupancy agreements, permits, or other approvals for this new or completely modified pipeline design; and
  3. consolidate into one application and examine the risks, impacts, and alternative analyses of the entire 645 miles of Line 5.

Read the full comments here.


Interview with Chris Doyal of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve Council

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

Michigan is the 22nd largest state if you consider only the land within its borders that is above water.  But if you add its submerged lands, it’s the 11th largest. Much of the approximately 40,000 square miles of Michigan under water consists of Great Lakes submerged lands, which belong to the public and are managed by the state as trustee.

 A 1980 state law authorizes the creation of underwater preserves in these submerged lands.  Michigan’s thirteen underwater preserves include approximately 7,200 square miles of Great Lakes bottomland – an area larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The underwater preserves protect some of the region’s most sensitive underwater resources.

The legislation imposes stiff penalties for disturbing shipwrecks and their artifacts. It is a felony to remove or disturb artifacts in Michigan’s Great Lakes.

 Divers were a principal force in the drafting of the 1980 law and today provide voluntary support to the preserve system. Supporters of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve are becoming active in exploring and mapping the 295-square mile preserve. We interviewed Chris Doyal, president of the Grand Traverse Bay Underwater Preserve Council, Inc., to find out what the group is up to.


A carriage that fell through ice onto the floor of Grand Traverse Bay in the early 1900s.

How large is the group and how diverse the backgrounds?

We are currently in the process of reforming. The preserve was essentially defunct for a few years. We have reformed and now have a board of directors comprised of six people. All of our board members are local divers.

 

How did you personally get involved?

I was contacted soon after the preserve was formed in 2007. My expertise is in underwater photography, and I was asked to photograph the shipwrecks.

 

How can someone join?

We currently aren’t a group that has an official membership. We may head that direction in the future. People usually approach us to share additional historical information about the various sites within the preserve. Local knowledge is the best.

 

Is there a newsletter/regular email?

No, but we maintain a Facebook page and a website.

 

What are some of the more noteworthy discoveries the GTBUP group has made?

Our primary goal has been to do an inventory of the known shipwrecks within the preserve. If we come across something new, that’s great. But we still have a lot of work to do documenting the known sites. We’re currently working with the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum to locate and document shipwrecks around Northport.

 

What is your partnership with MDNR/MDEQ like?

Since we don’t excavate or disturb sites in any way, we’ve not had any contact with them. However, we are looking into the possibility of installing buoys on some of the sites and that will likely need their support.

 

In addition to shipwrecks, are their environmental or aboriginal features of interest?

Absolutely. There are many important historical sites within the preserve. For example, Rev. Peter Dougherty’s pier remains are still easily seen from a boat. This was constructed around 1839. There are also several native American settlements within the preserve.

 

What is the preserve’s greatest need — e.g., awareness, funding, legislation & policy, protection?

It’s really too soon to tell what our needs will be. The restructured preserve is still in the process of defining its focus for the future.

 

Do you think people respect that these submerged lands are owned by the public?

Yes, but more education is always needed. The lands are managed by the state but owned by all of us. People really need to know how fragile these sites are.

“Look but don’t touch” certainly applies here.

 

 Whom should interested readers contact?

The contact section on the website is the best way to connect with us.


Whose waterfront is it anyway?

Whose waterfront is it anyway?

An important court case in Wisconsin will offer one answer to that question – – and it could have important implications for public access and open space in the redevelopment of Michigan’s and Great Lakes’ shorelines. 

The case, which is on appeal from a trial court that sided with the public’s interests, involves a developer’s proposal to build a hotel on the shores of Sturgeon Bay, on land that was formerly submerged and belonging to the state and citizens before being unlawfully filled in during the last century.

Some community officials back the development as economic development that benefits the city. But a group of concerned citizens and public trust defenders, called Friends of Sturgeon Bay, has sued the city to block the developers’ attempt to lock up shoreline. They pose the question: why would rare public filled land be privately developed, when private land can be acquired for the development on adjacent private lands, and the open space can be preserved? Wisconsin citizens asked FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson, to file an amicus brief on their side. We posed questions to Jim about the case and why FLOW has chosen to get involved.


How did your brief come to be?

An attorney from Madison, Wisconsin, contacted me by phone in early June to ask me if I would be willing to write an amicus brief for FLOW to submit to the Court of Appeals in Wisconsin. Because of FLOW’s mission to protect citizens’ rights in our lands and waters protected by the 150-year-old public trust in the Great Lakes basin, she asked us to support the trial court decision blocking the City of Sturgeon Bay’s sale of historically filled bottomlands of Lake Michigan. It’s in the middle of the waterfront in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, which is a popular tourist destination on the Door Peninsula.

What is the fundamental public trust issue at stake in the Sturgeon Bay litigation?

The fundamental issue for the citizens of Sturgeon Bay is the loss of a state-owned bottomlands parcel on the city’s waterfront. The city picked the parcel up from a foreclosure sale, packaged it with a redevelopment project, and entered into an agreement to sell it to a private developer. The rub? There is no legislative grant or disposition from the state to the city or any of the previous owners, as required by public trust common law.

Under the common law, states on behalf of citizens are the sovereign owner of the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes. Under this principle, state sovereign bottomlands cannot be transferred for purely private purposes. This is because there are certain commons like the Great Lakes that are not property. Government can’t sell off Great Lakes bottomlands for private gain, because it violates the limitations conferred by people on government under our state constitutions. Just because owners of adjacent private land fill up the Great Lakes over decades doesn’t change the constitutional and public trust limitation.

The City claims it had been filled for so long when it acquired the property, it took the title of the previous owner who the city claims acquired title by adverse possession (known colloquially as “squatter’s rights”) as the result of a fill and use that went on for more than 50 years. Under public trust law, filled or unfilled bottomlands below the Ordinary High Water Mark of the Great Lakes cannot be conveyed by the state or anyone for a private purpose or development. All a state can convey is occupancy to use, subject to reservation of state title, public trust and control, and revocation in the future. Private “squatters” can’t claim ownership over public trust bottomlands that the state can’t convey in the first place.

The fundamental legal question is whether a private person or the city can acquire filled bottomlands based on the legal doctrine of adverse possession. Can someone squat, in this case fill, state sovereign land for several decades, and claim ownership while no one was looking? This is the question I was asked to brief under public trust law, because if the state can’t convey public trust bottomlands, filled or otherwise, to a private or even public corporation, how can a title be acquired by adverse possession?

The answer is: “it can’t.” A landowner might drive over his neighbor’s side yard to get to the back forty for several decades in full view while the neighbor sits on his or her hands, and claim adverse possession, because state laws authorizes a court to grant relief as a result of the open trespass and inaction on the part of the neighbor. In effect, the legislature has declared that the neighbor has consented to a conveyance of the driveway because of the inaction. But when it comes to state public trust bottomlands of the Great Lakes, it can’t be done. Why? Because if the legislature doesn’t have the power to convey these public trust lands outright, it can’t pass a law that would authorize someone to own public trust land by walking through the back-door over a period of years.

What are the implications outside of Sturgeon Bay – in Michigan, for example?

The question is critical for citizens in states with hundreds of towns and cities, like Sturgeon Bay, on lakeshores and harbors of the Great Lakes. There are around 175 such communities in Michigan alone. If historically filled bottomlands can be taken by adverse possession, hundreds if not thousands of parcels owned by the states for the benefit of citizens could be up for grabs, at a time when public access, recreation, boating, navigation, open space, are more critical than ever for communities recovering from the taint of the rust-belt era. This is an opportunity for rust-belt communities to embrace their best public asset and become water-belt communities.

Why does it merit FLOW’s participation?

FLOW must participate to make sure the public trust doctrine is not distorted to justify loss of state public trust bottomlands to private control and ownership. One of our areas of concern has been to help cities and towns on the Great Lakes preserve public access, open space, and recreation and parkland along their waterfronts. With our expertise on public trust law, we determined that in most states, there is no adverse possession of public trust bottomlands, because it circumvents– end-runs –the rule that only a legislature can transfer within a very narrow range bottomlands to private or public entities, like a city, and it must be for a public trust use, like navigation, open space, recreation, boating, fishing; but the legislature has no power to convey its sovereign state title for purely private purpose development. We must make sure cities and developers don’t take public trust lands in which the whole people have a legal right of public access, use, and enjoyment by adverse possession.

I noticed in the brief you cite a recent Michigan court decision regarding Mackinac Island, a case in which you were involved. How does it relate to this case?

It’s directly relevant, because a private corporation bought a commercial docking operation, partly on top of historical fill dating back into the 1800s, and claimed it owned the filled land and dock on state public trust bottomlands based on adverse possession. The Court of Appeals, sitting as court of claims, granted summary disposition to the state, and tossed the private corporation’s claim out of court. The Court in effect declared, “These filled bottomlands cannot be owned privately by any one, because they rightly still belong to the state as trustees for the benefit of current and future generations.” States and citizens must vigilantly maintain and protect these public sovereign trust lands and waters, because they support the values important to all, including long-term quality of life and economic prosperity. There is a private market for private property, and that is for private development, not the Great Lakes.