MICHIGAN CITY – Members of Save the Dunes want to assure the public’s right to access along the Lake Michigan shoreline, even if the law that mandating is not exactly common knowledge. It's a fight that in recent years has centered on the Town of Long Beach.
Local beach enthusiasts, community members and elected officials were on hand at Save the Dunes headquarters for a recent presentation on the Public Trust Doctrine.
Conservation Law Center senior staff attorney Jeffrey B. Hyman explained the history of the law, and its relevance to a lakefront controversy that started when a couple who owned property in Long Beach challenged the law, which gives the state ownership from the water’s edge to the normal high water mark.
The homeowners claimed they owned the beach to the water’s edge and could keep other people off the beach in front of their house. Many homeowners in the area shared that opinion, Hyman said.
But, he said, “The public trust indicates that the public maintains the right to recreate on those beaches."
The Town of Long Beach has designated beach stops about a block apart where the public can access the beach from Lake Shore Drive.
According to Robert Lemay, president of the Long Beach Town Council, the entire beach has always been open to the public.
“The idea that the citizens of Indiana should be limited to just our 40-foot-wide sections of the beach (the stops) is really intolerable to our leadership in Long Beach, and in fact, to the majority of our homeowners and residents,” Lemay said.
The Long Beach Alliance took up the cause and prevailed all the way up to the State Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court would not hear the case, affirming the public victory in the case, he said.
As a consequence to the legal victories, homeowners have been using different tactics to prevent the public from using the beaches near their homes. Lemay said there have been instances where homeowners have posted “private beach” signs, and even hired private security guards to drive people away from what they perceive to be their property.
Additionally, he mentioned recent reports of lakefront homeowners harassing beachgoers by playing loud music in an attempt to disturb their beach experience.
They even hired a lobbyist to attempt to persuade the state legislature to limit public activities on the beach.
But Long Beach has been taking measures to protect the public’s right to use the beaches.
“The Town of Long Beach, along with the city of Michigan City, have hired our own lobbyist to try and prevent this circumnavigation of the public interest," Lemay said. "The town has also been trying to protect what public beaches still remain, despite our rising lake levels.”
Long Beach has enacted ordinances to regulate seawall construction, especially in areas where they are not needed.
“Seawalls cause the sandy beaches on the Lakewood side to erode," he said. "The ideal protection for the lakefront properties are the dunes that naturally form if they are just left alone.
“Unfortunately, in Long Beach, we have some lakefront homeowners who choose to plow down those dunes so they can see the lake from their basement window,” Lemay said.
Long Beach has been trying to find ways to curtail this behavior, but has been unable to get assistance from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and has been granting permits for sand moving, or essentially “plowing down” the dunes.
“If this practice continues, basically the seawalls are going to extend further and further to the west, because the plowing down of the dunes takes away the [beach’s] protection,” he said. “We have our work cut out for us in protecting the public trust property. We need to protect our beaches from the politically connected, and frankly, monied interests that live on that north side of Lake Shore Drive.
"If you’ve seen any of those homes, you can probably tell that those homeowners are monied. We feel that the beach is perhaps the greatest asset that the town of Long Beach owns, and is well worth protecting. We’re going to continue to try and do all that we can, within our power, as long as we possibly can.”