April 20, 2016

Battle Over Lakeshore Property Rights In LaPorte County Continues With A New Twist

A battle over lakeshore property rights along Lake Michigan in LaPorte County is making its way through the courts. - Annie Ropiek/WBAA

A battle over lakeshore property rights along Lake Michigan in LaPorte County is making its way through the courts.

Annie Ropiek/WBAA

LONG BEACH, Ind. -- A property rights battle over public access to Indiana's Lake Michigan shore is moving forward with a new issue in the mix -- erosion.

Patricia Sharkey's home in the LaPorte County town of Long Beach is about a block away from a stretch of huge lakefront summer houses. In 2013, homeowners there sued the state, contending their private property extends all the way to the water.

Sharkey is part of the Long Beach Community Alliance, which sided with the state in that lawsuit. She says the public has the right to use the beach anywhere below the high water line.

"So you have some of the natural dune remains, you've got the natural vegetation, which forms what we believe is the actual ordinary high water mark," she points out on an existing public beach, unaltered by construction.

But last year's county Superior Court ruling didn't satisfy either side. It put the line higher than the water, but lower than the grass.

An Attorney General's office spokesman says the state's position is that public lands only extend up to that line, "regardless of whether it is covered by water at any particular time."

But Sharkey says that diminishes state property, which the Department of Natural Resources -- a party in the case -- doesn't have the authority to do. And she says the calculation defining the line isn't practical. 

"The tension between who owns the property and what is available for members of the public to use is palpable," she says. "We need that definition to be clear and visible for everybody."

Advocacy groups and homeowners are each appealing the case, meaning it's likely to go to the state Supreme Court.

And now Sharkey's group has another issue to worry about: preservation. She says the lake is way up this spring -- on this day, it's inches from the seawalls some homeowners have built on the beach.

Sharkey says the walls cause erosion, and she wants the town to allow fewer of them.

"We're, of course, concerned about, 'How do we preserve public spaces and public beaches,'" she says. "At the same time … folks are also concerned about how they preserve their private construction that has, in our view, been built on public properties."

The preservation battle is still playing out at the local level, but Sharkey says the issue could become more pressing as the beach disappears and the fight over what's left moves forward in appeals court. Oral arguments are expected by June.

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