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Debate Over Lake Michigan Beach Access Lives On In State Bill

lake michigan

Peter Byvoets, a retired member of Long Beach Town Council, says the Indiana Supreme Court decision has helped the town to craft better laws that respect both property owner's rights as well as that of the public. (Rebecca Thiele, WTIU/WFIU News)

A House bill seeks to challenge an Indiana Supreme Court decision that secured the public’s right to use Lake Michigan beaches that are in front of private property. 

The bill — authored by Rep. Doug Miller (R-Elkhart) — would allow lakefront property owners the rights to prevent the public from accessing more of the beach as long as those rights were stated in the most recent deed to the property.

Marissa Lynch of Long Beach Lakeside Homeowners Association says several residents in Long Beach were told their property extends to the water’s edge. She says the public should be limited to activities in the water and walking or jogging along the beach.

“When it comes to anything broader — picnicking, laying out for the day — any of those sorts of things should be done with the permission of the property owner itself,” Lynch says.

But opponents of the bill argue that the Indiana Supreme Court already decided that property lines along Lake Michigan only come to where the high water mark usually hits the beach — not to the water’s edge. The U.S. Supreme court decided not to take up the case

Jeffrey Hyman is an attorney with the Conservation Law Center — which represented environmental groups in the Indiana Supreme Court case. He says for centuries federal law has held that private property owners only own the land up to where the high water mark usually hits the beach — and that can’t be changed by a deed or plat map.

“If it goes below the natural ordinary high water mark, it has stolen state land and it’s unlawful,” Hyman says.

Sen. Karen Tallian (D-Ogden Dunes) called the timing of this bill “sadly ironic.” Last week Tallian and Rep. Pat Boy (D-Michigan City) sent a letter to the governor urging him to declare an emergency due to beach erosion on Lake Michigan that is threatening homes, roads, utility lines, and causing other issues.

“We no longer have a beach in northwest Indiana, is pretty much the case. It's gone. So when we talk about recreational use up to the ordinary high water mark, it's almost a moot point,” says Tallian.

Jeffrey Hyman says over time the ordinary high water mark can shift — sometimes leaving property owners with less beach than they started out with and sometimes more.

The bill would also strip cities and counties of the power to approve the construction of seawalls or control whether homeowners can remove sand and vegetation from their property.

Natalie Johnson is the executive director of Save the Dunes. She says local ordinances have done a good job to protect the delicate dune ecosystem — which is all around the lake, not just at Indiana Dunes National Park.

“When we talk about moving sand and vegetation, it can be extremely harmful. Not for just the dune in front of one house, but it can be a chain reaction for all the dunes — set them moving, set them eroding across the whole landscape,” Johnson says.

The chair of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jerry Torr (R-Carmel), says the committee will watch another bill regarding Lake Michigan beach use — Senate Bill 325 — closely as it makes its decision. The bill upholds what was established by the Indiana Supreme Court. 

Contact Rebecca at rthiele@iu.edu or follow her on Twitter at @beckythiele.

Indiana Environmental reporting is supported by the Environmental Resilience Institute, an Indiana University Grand Challenge project developing Indiana-specific projections and informed responses to problems of environmental change.

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