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IN Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Lake Michigan Beach Ownership

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Photo: Joe Gratz (Flickr)

This case matters because if the state owns the beach up to what’s called the ordinary high water mark—whether it’s covered by water or not—then the beach is public property and anyone can use it.

Ownership of beach property on Lake Michigan is in the balance in a lawsuit heard before the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday. The case centers on the question of public versus private property, and it could have far-reaching consequences.

Don and Bobbie Gunderson owned a property in Long Beach, Indiana, on the Lake Michigan shore. Their attorney, Peter Rusthoven, argues the Gundersons’ property includes any part of the beach not covered by water.

“You own to the water’s edge,” says Rusthoven. “Water comes up, there’s your boundary line. Water goes down, there’s your boundary line.”

Rusthoven stuck to that point even when presented with an unlikely hypothetical by Justice Steven David.

“Am I correct counsel,” asked Justice David, “that if for some reason the shores of Lake Michigan were to recede 100 feet because of solar effect, evaporation, that your client would acquire [that new land]?”

“Yes,” replied Rusthoven.

But the state of Indiana, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and two other groups disagree. Jeffrey Hyman, who represents Alliance for the Great Lakes, says water can cover the beach permanently or temporarily, but the beach is still part of Lake Michigan.

“Lake Michigan is a highly variable and dynamic system, water levels are rising and falling,” says Hyman. “That land on the shore is part of the bed of Lake Michigan.”

This case matters because if the state owns the beach up to what’s called the ordinary high water mark—whether it’s covered by water or not—then the beach is public property and anyone can use it.

The court did not issue a timetable for its ruling.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

  • Marvant

    In recent news, many thousands of homes in Florida and Texas and elsewhere have been covered or reached by high water as a result of hurricanes. By the logic of that
    lawyer, that property would cease to belong to its owners and would be public until the water had receded. I’m from South Louisiana and I know that sometimes the water stays high for days, sometimes for over a month. I think this shows that the reasoning is faulty.

  • lastcamp2

    The rich and powerful will not be satisfied until they own everything.

  • lastcamp2

    Flood levels do not define “high water mark,” which is usually average or ordinary high water levels. So, hurricane levels, for example, are not what counts.

  • Marvant

    I am in complete agreement with lastcamp2′s comment. My comment specified that I was disagreeing with the logic of Rusthoven, the lawyer for the landowners. He said that when due to unusual circumstances the waters receded a hundred feet his client automatically acquired title to that land, because property rights went to wherever the waterline was at that moment.

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