(Long Beach, IN) March 2, 2018 – Efforts to protect Lake Michigan and its critical shoreline habitat received a big boost from the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this month. A unanimous decision by the Court on a beach access case focused on defining whether the lake’s shoreline is in the public trust or private control. The Court’s decision is the most expansive state affirmation of the public trust doctrine along the Great Lakes shoreline, firmly putting the state’s Lake Michigan shorelands into public, not private, ownership.
The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling was the culmination of long-running disputes over use of the beaches in Long Beach, Indiana. In 2014, private property owners filed a lawsuit against the state of Indiana arguing that they exclusively owned the shoreline from the high water line to the water’s edge and could restrict, or stop, the public’s use of that shoreland. The case quickly became part of a national fight over the public trust doctrine.
The Alliance for the Great Lakes and Save The Dunes, represented by the Conservation Law Center’s staff attorney Jeff Hyman, intervened in the case as a defendant because of our belief that the state of Indiana clearly owned the shore and held it in trust for the public. Private rather than public ownership of the shoreline could significantly reduce environmental protections for an ecological area that naturally cuts across property lines, and would reduce public access to shoreline areas necessary for citizen science, environmental protection, and recreational activities.
Environmental groups applauded the landmark decision. The Court’s explanation of the public trust is probably the clearest of any court in the Great Lakes region to date. A strong public trust doctrine is an important part of environmental advocacy efforts. The doctrine obligates government agencies to act on behalf of the public to protect lands held “in trust,” providing protections and filling in gaps that other environmental laws don’t provide. There is a national property rights movement with a goal of weakening the public trust doctrine.
The case boosts protection efforts for vital shoreline habitat areas, which serve as a buffer zone between the lake and the upland, reducing pollution flowing into the lake while providing vital habitat for fish and wildlife. Additionally, the case reinforces the right of people to have continuous access along the lakefront, whether to go for a walk to admire the lake or to observe and monitor the area to ensure the public waters of the Great Lakes are protected.
“We need all of the tools available to protect the Great Lakes, especially in an era when environmental laws and agencies are under attack,” said Alliance for the Great Lakes President and CEO Joel Brammeier. “The Indiana Supreme Court’s decision sets a strong precedent for public ownership of shoreline areas, allowing citizen science activities and protection of critical shoreline habitats.”
“Our win in this case is one of tremendous importance,” said Save the Dunes Executive Director Natalie Johnson. “The ruling supports Hoosiers’ historic right to freely access our lakeshore and, as a result, allows us to continue to foster a deeper connection with our treasured natural areas.”
“The Conservation Law Center appreciates the opportunity to advocate for the Alliance and Save the Dunes and to help protect the Great Lakes. The Indiana Supreme Court clearly understood public trust law and applied it sensibly. All of Indiana’s citizens will benefit from the Court’s thoughtful decision in this case,” said Conservation Law Center Staff Attorney Jeffrey Hyman.
Providing numerous hours of pro bono legal support, Jeffrey Hyman, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Center, led the legal strategy and litigation as the case wound through trial and appellate courts, ultimately being decided by the Indiana Supreme Court. About 30 law students interning at the Conservation Law Center, which is led by director Bill Weeks, assisted in the case over the past four years. The Alliance for the Great Lakes and Save The Dune’s involvement in the case would not have been possible without the generous pro bono support from the Conservation Law Center.
Alliance for the Great Lakes: Jennifer Caddick, (312) 445-9760, firstname.lastname@example.org
Conservation Law Center: Jeffrey Hyman, (812) 856-5737, email@example.com
Save The Dunes: Natalie Johnson, (219) 879-3564, firstname.lastname@example.org