Save the Dunes, Alliance for the Great Lakes, along with the State of Indiana and Long Beach Community Alliance, have prevailed in landmark litigation that attempted, but failed, to abolish the public trust doctrine on Indiana’s portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline.
Indiana has long recognized and endorsed the public trust doctrine as applied to its waterbodies. Under this doctrine, the State of Indiana holds title to the shore of Lake Michigan below the ordinary high water mark (OHWM) in trust for the public to enjoy for recreation and other uses. Two lawsuits were brought by a handful of beachfront residents of Long Beach, Indiana who claimed that they, and not the public, own the Lake Michigan beach below their properties down to the instant water’s edge and that they can exclude the public from walking, sitting, fishing, birding, and playing along the beach – activities long held to be part of the public trust. The private landowners first sued the Town of Long Beach in the LaPorte County Circuit Court, claiming that the Town had “taken” their property by acknowledging the State’s ownership of the shore below the OHWM and the public’s right to use the shore. AGL and Save the Dunes, as intervening parties, successfully helped the Town defend against the first lawsuit. When the private landowners appealed the Circuit Court’s ruling in favor of the Town and intervenors, the Indiana Court of Appeals sent the case back to the trial court because the plaintiff landowners had failed to include the State of Indiana as a defendant and the State’s presence in the case was essential.
Meanwhile, a subset of the plaintiff landowners from the first case brought a second lawsuit, this time in the LaPorte County Superior Court, against the State of Indiana and Indiana Department of Natural Resources. This time the landowners had the right defendants, and again claimed that they own the Lake Michigan beach below their properties and can exclude the public. And again AGL and Save the Dunes successfully intervened. After extensive briefing, a hearing lasting several hours, and several months of deliberation, Judge Richard Stalbrink of the Superior Court issued his ruling in favor of the State and the intervenors on the side of the State.
AGL and Save the Dunes had argued to the court that under the “equal footing” and public trust doctrines, the State of Indiana, at statehood, received title to the bed of Lake Michigan – which includes the shore below the OHWM – to be held in trust for public uses, and that the State has never relinquished that title or abrogated its public trust duties. Judge Stalbrink agreed. In a twenty-two page opinion he ruled that the State of Indiana owns the shores of Lake Michigan below the OHWM and holds that property in trust for the public’s protected uses, regardless of whether the beach is currently covered by water. Judge Stalbrink then ruled on the scope of the public trust for the beach below the OHWM: “commerce, navigation, fishing, recreation, and all other activities related thereto, including but limited to boating, swimming, sunbathing, and other beach sport activities.” He concluded that “private landowners cannot impair the public’s right to use the beach below the OHWM for these protected purposes,” and that to hold otherwise would “deny the public from enjoying Indiana’s limited access to one of the greatest natural resources in this State.”
The Importance of this Decision
Our win in this case is enormously important for two reasons. First, the public trust doctrine and State title to the Lakeshore are important to conservation efforts on the shoreline of Lake Michigan. Regulation of potentially damaging construction and other activities, and the integrity and continuity of the shoreline ecosystem, are greatly facilitated by public ownership. Second, as Judge Stalbrink recognized in his opinion, the Lakeshore below the OHWM is a critically important public resource. If the beachfront residents had prevailed in their lawsuits, the public’s historic right to freely use the Indiana Lakeshore would be gutted and our invaluable connection to the shore of Lake Michigan would be forever changed.
We would like to thank the lawyers at the Conservation Law Center in Bloomington, Indiana for representing Save the Dunes and Alliance for the Great Lakes and for securing this landmark win. We also thank our fellow intervenors, the Long Beach Community Alliance, as well as the Indiana Attorney General for their cooperation and collaboration in defending the public trust on Indiana’s Lake Michigan shoreline.