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LONG BEACH — Sometimes people just don't accept "no" for an answer.

That's what Tom King said he was thinking Saturday on the Lake Michigan shoreline at Long Beach when he said he encountered a lake-adjacent property owner and a security guard, who King said were attempting to boot dozens of people off what they claimed was a private beach.

"The security agent was going from group to group to group, telling people they had to leave the beach, that the beach was indeed private down to the water's edge," said King, a director of the Long Beach Community Alliance.

"I explained to them that is not the case, and that they had no right on public property to try to vacate people from the beach."

The Indiana Supreme Court in February ruled that the Lake Michigan shoreline, up to the point where the beach becomes soil, also known as the ordinary high water mark, is unquestionably owned by the state of Indiana, and the public has the right to access the beach for navigation, commerce, fishing and recreation.

Nevertheless, King said property owner Jim Smith still wanted the weekend crowd, which had gathered on the beach to watch the annual Great Lakes Grand Prix boat races, to move off "his" beach.

"The shock of this, the absolute shock of this, seeing private security on the beach engaged by private homeowners trying to throw people off of public property," King said.

Smith insisted Wednesday that he had nothing to do with bringing in a security firm. He said the Long Beach Homeowners Association made that decision.

"I did not hire the security guard," Smith said. "I was not on the beach. I was on my property." 

Town Council records from 2014 show that Smith previously has complained about "profanity, drinking and inappropriate behavior" on the beach. He declined to say whether he considers the beach to be his property.

King ultimately called Long Beach police on Saturday to set everyone straight on the law.

"They (the police) told Jim and the security agent they had no right to do this, please remove or there could be some consequences," King said. "I understand the policeman was very diplomatic, and very professional, and got them to desist."

"It's unfortunate, because I don't know how many people had actually left the beach upon hearing that. As I said, this weekend of all weekends, with more people at the beach than usual, it's possible people didn't know the law."

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"I've never asked anybody to leave my beach. I have never in the eight years that I have owned that property have asked anybody to leave that beach. Never. Never once," Smith said.

Long Beach Chief Marshal Robert Sulkowski said when the report came in of a security guard trying to remove people from the beach, a town officer was dispatched to the scene. The security guard was "very cooperative and left," Sulkowski said.

Private property ends where the vegetation does, Sulkowski said. The beach and water are public property.

Appeal pending

The Indiana Supreme Court decision terminating private property rights at the ordinary high water mark, and guaranteeing public access to Lake Michigan beaches, is likely to be appealed in October to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is led by Chief Justice John Roberts, who lived in Long Beach as a boy.

While there's only a minimal chance that the nation's high court will hear the case, based on past acceptance rates, King said much more is at stake than just having the beaches open to the public for the 90 percent of Long Beach homeowners who don't live on the lake.

"This affects our quality of life," he said. "Had they been successful in trying to lay claim to ownership of that property it would have adversely affected our home values."

At the same time, King said the property rights lawsuit filed by Bobbie and Don Gunderson puts all Hoosiers at risk of losing access to the state's few non-industrial areas along Indiana's mere 45 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline.

"It's a really, really, really phenomenal resource, and to think that people are trying to privatize it is really just incomprehensible to me," King said.

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, said after hearing about the security guard incident, she's working to connect Long Beach police with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to nip similar escalations in the bud.

Long Beach has easements at each bus stop that allow public access to the beach, Sulkowski said, although there's no public parking in the town. Only residents and their guests with parking stickers are allowed to use the town parking lot.

The beach itself, where the incident occurred, is state property, Sulkowski said, so the DNR has jurisdiction there.

Tallian also plans to sponsor legislation in the 2019 General Assembly to make clear in statute the border between the state-owned shoreline and adjacent private property, as well as to define what counts as beach recreation beyond the Supreme Court's acknowledged minimum of walking along the beach.

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Financial Affairs Reporter

Dan has reported on Indiana state government for The Times since 2009. He also covers casinos, campaigns and corruption.