David Hoppe

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:: The judge has ruled

The beach belongs to everyone

by David Hoppe

Enough is enough.

At the risk of gross over-simplification, that’s how I would summarize Judge Richard Stalbrink’s July 24 ruling in the case of Gunderson v. State of Indiana.

I first wrote about this case back in April, when it was going before Judge Stalbrink in Laporte Superior Court 2 in Michigan City.

At issue was the Gunderson’s assertion that, as lakefront homeowners along the shore of Lake Michigan, their private property rights extended all the way to the water’s edge.

This assertion was disputed by an alliance consisting not only of the State of Indiana and its Department of Natural Resources, but the Alliance For the Great Lakes, Save the Dunes, and the Long Beach Community Alliance.

That latter group, the LBCA, deserves special attention because they were the first on the scene, when the Gundersons and a few other like-minded lakefront homeowners decided to press this issue in the courts. The LBCA is a grassroots citizens group, funded entirely by the donations of Long Beach folks and friends (myself included) who objected to what they saw as a land grab.

Mention Long Beach, Indiana, to most people from other parts and they are likely to tell you that there’s no such thing as a “long beach” in Indiana. This has been said to me on more than one occasion.

It’s no wonder people make this mistake. As Judge Stalbrink pointed out in his judgment, with a mere 45 miles, Indiana has the least amount of shoreline of the eight Great Lakes states. But then the judge says this: “Moreover, this Court finds the idea that Indiana, with such a limited amount of shoreline, would restrict and in effect deny its citizens’ access to such an amazing natural resource, granting near exclusive rights to a vast portion of the shoreline to a select few homeowners, to be a far stretch of reason and common sense.”

Judge Stalbrink drew on a vast amount of legal precedent, both state and national, in finding that Indiana holds the shores of Lake Michigan below what’s called the ordinary high water mark; and that the scope of Indiana’s public trust doctrine includes and protects recreational activities along that shore.

The judge wrote: “Private landowners cannot impair the public’s right to use the beach…for these protected purposes. To hold otherwise would invite the creation of a beach landscape dotted with small, private, fenced and fortified compounds designed to deny the public from enjoying Indiana’s limited access to one of the greatest natural resources in this State.”

The LBCA, and their various allies, expect this ruling to be appealed. We appear to be living through one of those eras that come and go in America, during which, as the saying goes, “money talks.”

In Long Beach, this tends to mean that people, primarily from out-of-state, are buying up properties along the lake, tearing down existing homes and building new ones, many of which have all the charm of your typical Mid-American conference center.

The town of Long Beach is going to have to figure how to deal with that. In the meantime, we have Judge Stalbrink’s common sense to see us through.

Enough is enough.