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Published: Thursday, 8/4/2005

Keep beaches accessible

WE THOUGHT the case was a no-brainer, but it took a ruling by the Michigan Supreme Court last week to reaffirm the right to walk along Great Lakes shores in front of private beach-front homes.

The 5-2 decision, which reversed a 2004 ruling by the Michigan Court of Appeals, is a victory for the age-old legal principle that protects public access to lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water.

It also runs contrary to a selfish attempt by property rights zealots in Ohio to fence off the beach in front of their cottages and homes on Lake Erie, a misguided effort that continues in the General Assembly and in a federal court lawsuit.

The decision Up North is a welcome one for millions of Michiganders and tourists who like to stroll along the Mitten State's 3,200 miles of Great Lakes beach, 70 percent of which is privately owned. Ohio has only about 300 miles of Lake Erie frontage, but the principle is the same.

The Michigan court's majority held that the "public trust doctrine," dating back to the 6th century Roman code of Justinian and preserved in English common law, protects the right "to walk along the shores of the Great Lakes."

American law has long recognized that large bodies of navigable water, such as the oceans, are natural resources that belong to the public, the court said. "In our common-law tradition, the state, as sovereign, acts as trustee of public rights in these natural resources. Consequently, the state lacks the power to diminish those rights when conveying littoral property to private parties."

The public trust doctrine, the court noted, applies to the Great Lakes as well as the oceans.

The case should provide more solid footing for beach walkers in Ohio, whose pastime is being threatened by pending legislation and a lawsuit that would require them to walk not on the sand but in the near-shore water, where they might be impeded by docks and jetties.

What owners of shoreline property want, of course, is to keep anyone but themselves off the beach in front of their home or cottage. It's essentially an elitist proposition that has consistently been rejected in the courts but is gaining credence in conservative "property rights" circles.

That claim has now been emphatically rejected by the Michigan Supreme Court. Ohio legislators should take heed and take steps to prevent "no trespassing" signs from sprouting along Lake Erie beaches in the Buckeye State.

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