Gunderson v. State of Indiana; LBLHA, LLC v. Town of Long Beach, Indiana

Grabby, grabby! Indiana takes private lakefront property for public sunbathing and volleyball

Cases > Property Rights > Gunderson v. State of Indiana; LBLHA, LLC v. Town of Long Beach, Indiana
Lost: The Indiana Supreme Court ruled that, contrary to state Supreme Court precedent, century-old local and federal understanding, and basic history, the State of Indiana owned the beach between the water’s edge and the ‘high water mark’ on the non-tidal shores of Lake Michigan.
Case Court: Indiana Supreme Court

The state of Indiana and some Indiana towns bordering Lake Michigan declared privately-owned lakefront property to be public land and invited the public to engage in recreational activities on it. The property owners sued because their dry beach property, for which they own the title deed and on which they pay taxes, is not subject to the “public trust doctrine” that applies to navigable water and the land beneath it. As amicus representing a lakefront property owner, PLF argues that because Lake Michigan does not have tides, the stationary waterline should mark the edge of the state’s legitimately held public trust. Any attempt to encroach on property rights landward of that waterline is a taking that requires just compensation.

The states bordering the Great Lakes have a long sought to steal land bordering the lakes from private property owners. Indiana recently tried to take this land upland of the waterline on Lake Michigan, all the way to a fictional, administratively created “ordinary high water mark” that encroaches well onto private property all along the lake in Indiana. Since the Great Lakes are not tidal, both the actual high and actual low watermarks are the same – the waterline. Indiana localities followed the State’s lead and stopped enforcing trespassing laws on the disputed land.

Private property owners along Lake Michigan sued the state (Gunderson) and localities (e.g., Long Beach) for declaratory relief regarding their ownership of the land in dispute and for a regulatory taking. A lower rejected the property owners’ claims on the theory that the “public trust doctrine” means that the state always owned the land, regardless of whatever a deed might say, and may use the beach for any activity – including boating, swimming, sunbathing, volleyball, and so on. This expands the doctrine far beyond its standard definition, which is that the state holds navigable waters and the land beneath “in trust” only for public navigation, commerce, and fishing.

As amicus on behalf of a lakefront property owner, PLF argues that the public trust doctrine must be applied within its traditional limitations, both as to the scope of the land affected and the activities permitted. To the extent that state encroaches on private property for other purposes, it owes the landowners just compensation for the taking of their property.

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What’s at stake?

  • Expansion of the public trust doctrine to dry beach areas improperly allows the government to identify any pleasurable activities that may promote public enjoyment of waters as matters within the public’s “right” to use private property.
  • An increase in “public trust” land necessarily results in a decrease in landowners’ property rights – for which they are due just compensation.

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