U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Bid by Lake Michigan Waterfront Lot Owners in Indiana to Outlaw Public Access along All Great Lakes Beaches
photo by Beth Price
The Town of Long Beach, Indiana, runs along a wide stretch of sandy Lake Michigan beach just below the southwest corner of Michigan. Residences, and a series of public access corridors, extend to the shore from the town’s Lake Shore Drive. More homes extend inland along winding streets, hills, and vistas, all centered on and sloping to Lake Michigan and the beach. Not surprisingly, everyone in the town has used the beach access areas for swimming, sunbathing, and picnics since Long Beach was founded in 1921.
A few disgruntled land owners on the shore side of the public street in 2012 started blocking and disturbing residents and their families from walking along the beach bordering private property, and then in 2014 sued to overturn Indiana’s definition of land available for public access along the Great Lakes — the “ordinary high water mark,” which is basically the point representing the maximum rise of a body of water over land.
The town and many of its other residents opposed these actions, and were upheld in their right to walk the beach by a decision of the trial court. The waterfront owners appealed, and in 2018, the Indiana Supreme Court appeared to finally put an end to the question once and for all. In an unassailably reasoned decision, the Indiana Supreme Court recognized the public’s right of access and right to walk all 45 miles of Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline, as long as citizens stay below the permanent natural or ordinary high water mark.
But with the support of a legal foundation endowed by wealthy development interests, the disgruntled landowners filed a petition for certiorari (request for appeal) with the U.S. Supreme Court. They argued that their waterfront lots should extend to the low, not natural high, water mark of the Great Lakes, and that the Supreme Court should overturn 150 years of rulings and precedent set by itself and the supreme courts of numerous states that established state ownership and public access up to the high water mark. In essence, the waterfront landowners made the argument that the titles of soils to the ordinary high water mark of navigable waters in every state in the nation should be reversed.
The U.S. Supreme Court in mid-February, crisply and correctly rejected these arguments as extreme and untenable. How and why would any court disturb the law of private property and public trust in our common waters and lakebeds and shores on which ownership, use, custom, and understanding has evolved over nearly two centuries?
Once more, this effort by the town and many of its residents, joined by some conservation organizations, demonstrates how important it is for citizens, all of us, to respect and uphold long-standing precedent in our paramount public trust waters and lands.
It is also critical to respect and honor that which is shared by all of us, including waterfront landowners who retain and enjoy the exclusive riparian rights of use of the water, lakebed, and beach for their own docks, boats, sunbathing, picnics, etc., above the ordinary high water mark, without interference by the public, which enjoys the common right of walking, swimming, and access below the ordinary high water mark. These uses are shared and must be accommodated, not blocked or obliterated by the misguided self-interest of a few landowners.
The bottom line is that we all continue to be on firm legal ground when we walk the beaches of the Great Lakes. Walk on!