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Hoosier justices agree to rule on Lake Michigan beach ownership

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INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana Supreme Court has agreed to decide who owns the land immediately adjacent to Lake Michigan.

The high court's order granting transfer in Gunderson v. State vacates a 2016 Indiana Court of Appeals ruling that established an unprecedented property-sharing arrangement between the state and lakefront landowners.

All parties to the case agreed the appellate court's resolution was unsatisfactory for a variety of reasons and asked the Supreme Court to dispose of it and independently weigh the merits of their claims.

The justices now will receive written briefs and likely hear oral arguments later this year before issuing a decision, probably in 2018.

At stake is the ability of Northwest Indiana residents and visitors to walk, sunbathe and play on Lake Michigan beaches located between the water and privately owned properties next to the lake.

Don and Bobbie Gunderson, of Long Beach, claim their land on Lake Michigan extends to the water's edge, regardless of where the edge is at any given time.

As a result, the Gundersons say they are entitled to exclusive control over that land — meaning no one can use or access the beach by their house without their permission.

The state insists that it owns the lakefront land in trust for all Hoosiers up to the "ordinary high-water mark." That mark generally is defined as the line on the shore where the presence and action of water is continuous enough to distinguish it from land through erosion, vegetation changes or other characteristics.

Not only was Indiana granted the land under Lake Michigan at statehood in 1816, but it also is required to control beach erosion, which it cannot effectively do if nearby homeowners are allowed to claim the beach is theirs, according to Indiana Solicitor General Thomas Fisher.


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