INDIANAPOLIS — Hoosiers should feel free in the warm months ahead to use the beaches along Lake Michigan as they always have.
That's the message from state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, whose Senate-approved legislation seeking to codify the numerous recreational uses of the lakeshore was not taken up by the House and will not become law this year.
Senate Bill 553 would have affirmatively declared that Lake Michigan beach visitors are permitted to fish, boat, swim, wade, walk, run, sit, recline, picnic, sunbathe, bird watch, toss a ball or disc, play sports or engage in any similar or related shore activities.
It followed a 2018 Indiana Supreme Court ruling, known as Gunderson v. State, that affirmed the Lake Michigan shoreline, up to the ordinary high water mark, is owned by the state and held in trust for, and open to, all Hoosiers.
The high water mark, essentially the edge of the beach, is defined as the line on the shore established by the fluctuations of water and indicated by physical characteristics, such as a clear and natural line on the bank, shelving or changes in the soil's character.
The court said within that area individuals are entitled to access the water for the traditional purposes of navigation, commerce or fishing.
Walking on the beach also is a protected public use, the court said. But it left decisions about specifying other permissible recreational uses of the beach to the Indiana General Assembly.
"I thought I was doing just a simple bill to codify what the Supreme Court said," Tallian said. "Then we had a few homeowners from Long Beach who spent a lot of time and money on a lobbyist to try to do whatever they could to not make that bill happen."
Bobbie and Don Gunderson, and their supporters in the Long Beach Lakefront Homeowners' Association, filed the lawsuit that produced the landmark Indiana Supreme Court ruling, which the U.S. Supreme Court in February chose not to disturb.
The Gundersons claimed the property of lake-adjacent land owners extended beyond the ordinary high water mark to the water's edge, wherever that is at any given time, and they had the right to limit who could access the beach near their homes.
Tallian said the Supreme Court ruling should deter Long Beach property owners from continuing to try to limit beach access.
"The rest of our lakefront seems to know what recreational use means," she said.
At the same time, Tallian suggested, "If anybody has any problem, they should just take their fishing pole with them."
State Rep. Jerry Torr, R-Carmel, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which did not hear Tallian's proposal, said there was no malicious intent on his part — only a desire to get it right.
He also wanted to disentangle Tallian's legislation from a related measure proposing to regulate Lake Michigan seawalls (Senate Bill 581) that Torr also killed off by not giving it a committee hearing.
"I just didn't think we were quite where we needed to be yet, and most folks told me that they could live with the court decision for a year," Torr said.
Torr even traveled to Northwest Indiana a few weeks ago to view the Lake Michigan beaches and get a better sense for the issues involved.
"I really wasn't comfortable living 150 miles from it, or whatever it is, and making a decision that would affect those people and not affect me," he said.
"I want to go back up this summer when it's nice weather, and people are actually on the beach, to see how it's used and what happens there now. Then I assume those bills will come back next year, and we'll probably find some kind of common ground."
Tallian agreed that a legislative response to the Supreme Court ruling can wait another year.
In the meantime, she said traditional Lake Michigan beach activities should proceed, as usual, no matter how bent of out shape some Long Beach homeowners may get.
"I have a Supreme Court case. They have nothing," Tallian said.