INDIANAPOLIS — There no longer is any legal question that Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline is owned by the state and held in trust for all Hoosiers to enjoy.
The U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday that it would not hear an appeal by lake-adjacent land owners who were seeking to extend their properties to the water's edge and to limit who could access the beaches near their homes.
As is typical, the nine justices did not say why they denied the review to Bobbie and Don Gunderson and their supporters in the Long Beach Lakefront Homeowners' Association.
The high court's refusal to intervene in the case simply was included on a 28-page order list summarily disposing of hundreds of appeals from across the county.
As a result, the Feb. 14, 2018, Indiana Supreme Court decision in Gunderson v. State is the final word on Lake Michigan property line boundaries in the Hoosier State.
The 4-0 ruling by the state's high court definitively sets the ordinary high water mark as the boundary between the state-owned land under and adjacent to Lake Michigan, and the interests of nearby private property owners.
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.
Within that area, individuals are entitled to access the water for the traditional purposes of navigation, commerce or fishing, according to the ruling.
The court also said, at a minimum, walking on the beach is a protected public use. But it left decisions about specifying other permissible recreational uses of the beach to the Indiana General Assembly.
Senate Bill 553, sponsored by state Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, would guarantee that Lake Michigan beach 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.
The Senate is expected in coming days to vote on adding or subtracting items from that list, and then decide whether to advance the legislation to the House.
In the meantime, traditional beach activities continue to be permitted along the Lake Michigan shoreline absent a court order to the contrary.
Natalie Johnson, executive director at Save the Dunes, one of the groups working to protect Hoosier access to the shoreline, said the organization is "thrilled" that the U.S. Supreme Court is leaving intact the landmark Indiana Supreme Court ruling.
"Though the attacks on the public trust are ongoing, we can now confidently move forward defending the Gunderson v. Indiana decision, ensuring the shoreline is open to all," Johnson said.
Likewise, the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington said the result "may be the most solid statement of the core public trust doctrine yet by a Great Lakes state."
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