Thursday, Jul 28, 2016
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Lake Erie's boundary

The extent to which people can walk freely along the shoreline of Lake Erie -- the world's 11th largest lake and one of North America's greatest resources -- remains murky after an Ohio Supreme Court ruling this week that has both sides claiming victory.

The high court recognized the need to protect private property rights in its ruling. It stated repeatedly that the boundary "extends to the natural shoreline, the line at which the water usually stands when free from disturbing causes." It cited precedents dating to 1878.

To Tony Yankel, president of the 7,000-member Ohio Lakefront Group, the court's ruling is simple: You're on public land if you stand in lake water that abuts private property. Otherwise, you're trespassing.

But Andy Buchsbaum, a University of Michigan law professor and director of the National Wildlife Federation's Great Lakes regional office, claimed victory for people seeking greater lake access, who were represented by attorneys from his organization, the State of Ohio, and the Ohio Environmental Council. He pointed out that the justices reversed lower-court decisions asserting the boundary shifts with wave action.

"This is saying no," Mr. Buchsbaum said. "We're not quite sure what that means, but it's not the water's edge anymore."

Advocates of public access will go back to trial court and reopen their 2004 argument that the line starts at the nebulous "ordinary high-water mark," he said. The state has claimed the public owns the land between the water's edge and that.

After years of litigation and thousands of dollars in court costs, people still don't know where to stand along the Great Lakes shoreline in Ohio. In Michigan, unfettered access is allowed near the water.

The Great Lakes are a national treasure, yet one with only limited public access. The only clear victory in the current ruling is language declaring that land beneath the water doesn't leave the public trust simply because a private property owner got permission to fill it in. The appeals court had allowed for that.

The right to walk unimpeded along the shore of a public body of water has been guaranteed by common law for nearly 15 centuries. That shouldn't change now.

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