PORTAGE — State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, will try again next year to insert specific protections in Indiana law for everything Hoosiers have enjoyed doing at their Lake Michigan beaches for more than a century.
Tallian told some 75 people attending a Save the Dunes event Thursday in Portage that the unusual codification is needed because the Indiana Supreme Court last year declined to specify all the recreational uses of the Lake Michigan shoreline in its landmark Gunderson v. State ruling.
That 4-0 decision 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.
Earlier this year, state senators approved Tallian's Senate Bill 553 that would have affirmatively declared 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.
However, the measure wasn't debated in the House after it got tangled up with a related measure (Senate Bill 581) that proposed new regulations on Lake Michigan seawalls.
Attorneys Jeffrey Hyman, with the Conservation Law Center, and Patricia Sharkey, of Environmental Law Counsel, said recreational use and seawalls are among several still unanswered questions following the Supreme Court's Gunderson decision.
They said it's also not yet clear which state agency is responsible for protecting the public trust on the Lake Michigan shoreline, what role local government plays in policing the beach and what happens when a lakefront homeowner unlawfully encroaches onto land that rightfully belongs to all Hoosiers.
Sharkey said the high court ruling gave Indiana "one of the strongest statements, the clearest statements of the public trust, compared to our neighboring states."
Now it's up to the state to put in place processes and protections to make sure the public trust is guarded against some lake-adjacent land owners, particularly in Long Beach, when they seek to bulldoze sand dunes and erect walls and other access barriers, she said.