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Breaking waves

Waves break near driftwood at scenic Kemil Beach, which is part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

A property dispute many years in the offing demands a definitive answer from the Indiana Supreme Court.

The final decision affects public vs. private land rights to one of our Region's most important natural assets: Lake Michigan beaches and shoreline.

In the coming weeks, the state's highest court is slated to decide whether to vacate or uphold an Indiana Court of Appeals decision in the case Gunderson v. State.

The Times statehouse reporter Dan Carden detailed the case in a May 28 article, which is attached to this editorial online.

At the heart of the case is how far inland, beyond the actual water line of Lake Michigan, state ownership of the beach extends and how close to the water a private individual can own property. It also concerns who possesses the land between those areas that is sometimes covered in water.

The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 in December that the state's interest extends to the "ordinary high water mark," which is the line on the shore where the waterline is continuous enough to distinguish it from land through erosion, vegetation changes or other characteristics.

The appeals court also ruled that the boundary of waterfront properties is the lake's ordinary low-water mark, with possession of the beach between those boundaries shared by property owners and the state.

The Indiana solicitor general is seeking a definitive ruling from the state Supreme Court, arguing that state holds exclusive title to the land up to the high water mark and that co-ownership of the beach with private landowners undermines state responsibility, including for erosion control.

The state also argues co-ownership could limit public use of the beach.

Don and Bobbie Gunderson, of Long Beach, believed their former property on Lake Michigan extended to the water's edge, hence the legal dispute. They sought to prevent anyone from walking, sunbathing or picnicking on the beach near their house without permission.

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The Gundersons have sold the property since the lawsuit began, but the dispute remains one worthy of definitively settling for the sake of future public and private interests.

The high court owes Indiana citizens, particularly those who own lakefront property or regularly use public beaches, a clear and final judgment.

The lakefront, its use and businesses and amenities that complement it are essential to our Region's current and future economy.

Regardless of how public vs. private lakefront boundaries are defined, we all deserve a clear answer.

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Members of The Times Editorial Board are Publisher Christopher T. White, Editor Marc Chase, Deputy Editor Kerry Erickson, Assistant Local News Editor Crista Zivanovic and Regional News Editor Sharon Ross.