Judge: Land owners can’t keep public off Lake Michigan beach

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — A man who owns a piece of Indiana’s short stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline and said he had “complete and exclusive ownership” of its beachfront holds no such right and cannot deny the public access to that space, a judge has found.

Long Beach property owner Don Gunderson sued the state of Indiana and the state Department of Natural Resources last year, contending that his lakefront property along Indiana’s 45-mile shoreline extends to the water’s edge in the exclusive community some 30 miles east of Chicago.

Gunderson argued that the deed to that property gave him “complete and exclusive ownership” of its beachfront and that the public had no right to fish, swim, sunbathe or otherwise enjoy those sandy shores.

A LaPorte County judge ruled July 24 against his suit, but his finding — that the public has the right to access that beachfront and by extension the rest of the state’s Lake Michigan beaches — was not released until this week.

Gunderson had argued that Indiana had surrendered the public’s right of access to the Lake Michigan shoreline by excluding it from Indiana code dealing with the preservation of the state’s freshwater lakes.

But LaPorte Superior Court Judge Richard Stalbrink Jr. found that while Indiana had excluded the lake from its code pertaining to the state’s freshwater lakes it “did not surrender the public’s rights” to Lake Michigan’s beachfront. His ruling said private landowners cannot deny the public access to use the beach below its ordinary high-water mark, an area that encompasses much of the beachfront.

“To hold otherwise would invite the creation of a beach landscaped 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,” Stalbrink wrote.

Michael Knight, the attorney for Gunderson and two other parties who joined him in an earlier lawsuit that made some similar claims, said Wednesday he had no comment on the ruling and that no decision had been made on whether the ruling would be appealed.

The Indiana DNR did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment on the ruling.

But several groups that joined Indiana in fighting the lawsuit called the ruling a big victory for the public that reinforces long-held public-access rights to Indiana’s 45 miles of Lake Michigan — the smallest such beachfront among the eight Great Lakes states.

Patrick Cannon, a board member with one of those groups, the Long Beach Community Alliance, said the ruling helps support the ability of “our children and grandchildren — and for generations beyond — to be able to use the beach as we have since Long Beach was founded in the 1920’s.”

Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, called Lake Michigan, its beaches and its sandy dunes “Indiana’s greatest natural assets.”

“The public’s longstanding historic right to freely enjoy the lakefront in Long Beach should simply never be gutted for private interests,” she said in a statement.

The Alliance for the Great Lakes, which also contested Gunderson’s suit, called the ruling a “landmark win” which “upholds Indiana’s public trust protections — including the public’s right to recreate on its portion of the Lake Michigan shoreline.”

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