INDIANAPOLIS — The landmark Indiana Supreme Court ruling issued one year ago Thursday, definitively announcing that Lake Michigan's shoreline is owned by the state for use by all Hoosiers, left it to lawmakers to precisely decide the recreational purposes for which the beach may be used.
On Monday, the Senate Natural Resources Committee took up that charge by evaluating and approving Senate Bill 553, sponsored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes.
It provides that on the state-owned property between the water's edge and the ordinary high water mark, or roughly the spot where beach becomes land, visitors are permitted to fish, boat, swim, walk, run, sit, recline, picnic, sunbathe, bird watch, toss a ball or disc, play sports or engage in any similar or related shore activities.
"We have 40 miles of shoreline. Half of it is in my district. So I thought I better step up," Tallian said. "This language needs to apply to everyone and to guarantee that people have a right to use this beach, and yeah, we actually have to legislate this."
She said the need to legislate is due in part to an ongoing legal challenge by lake-adjacent property owners in the LaPorte County town of Long Beach who are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that they own the beach to the water's edge, and are entitled to control who accesses "their" property.
The nation's high court could decide as soon as Friday whether it will hear the case known as Gunderson v. Indiana.
If the Supreme Court denies certiorari, as it does with most petitions for review, the Indiana high court ruling will be the final word on the matter, and Tallian's legislation would codify that decision's common law interpretation of lakeshore property boundaries.
"We're not re-litigating where the property line is. That's already been decided," Tallian told the committee.
"I'm asking you to decide that recreational use in the state of Indiana includes sitting on the beach, playing Frisbee and doing those things people normally have been doing there for 150 years."
The committee separately agreed to advance Senate Bill 581 to the full chamber. It authorizes the Indiana Natural Resources Commission to set rules for the use of any shoreline land above the ordinary high water mark that is not privately owned.
Within that zone, the commission exclusively would decide whether to issue permits for maintenance or construction of sea walls, revetments, retaining walls, secondary erosion control and beach grooming — superseding any local ordinances.
"We need one agency that knows what they're doing to do that," said state Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Goshen, the sponsor.
A third, related proposal, House Bill 1553, providing limited civil legal immunity to lake-adjacent homeowners if people cut across their properties to access the beach, did not advance out of a House committee Monday.
The panel instead decided simply to look at adding "beach" to a 2018 statute absolving landowners of liability for injuries to individuals who cross private property to access a trail, greenway or similar recreation area.