COLUMBUS - The head of a group of lakefront property owners said yesterday he fears that a bill to draw the line between private property and a doctrine that allows citizens to enjoy Lake Erie's shore is "dead."
David Carek, chairman of the Ohio Lakefront Group, said the bill is stuck in a nine-member Senate committee.
The House of Representatives on Dec. 10 passed the bill by a wide margin, but lobbyists for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources who have said the bill would halt public access to the lakeshore "must have had significant influence on some of the senators," said Mr. Carek.
The bill would redefine the southern boundary of Lake Erie "public trust lands" from the ordinary high water mark set by the federal government to "where the waters make contact with the land" in Ohio
Jim Lynch, a DNR spokesman, said the agency still hopes a compromise can be crafted.
He said the department supports several provisions inserted from a separate bill to streamline the permitting process for shoreline property owners.
The comments were made a few hours after sportsmen and conservationists denounced a "compromise" proposal floated by a Republican lawmaker to allow public access on a five-foot-wide strip of land along Lake Erie's 262-mile shore.
"We reject the notion that access to a paltry five-foot shoreline would adequately compensate Ohio's 11 million citizens for land held in the public trust that will be taken from us," said Ray Zehler, executive director of the Ohio division of the Izaak Walton League of America.
Under the "Public Trust " doctrine, state officials say they are allowed to regulate Lake Erie waters from the border with Canada to where the high-water mark intersects the natural shoreline - giving the public access to that area.
The bill would change the boundary for public access from the ordinary high-water mark - currently at an elevation of 573.4 feet - to "where the water meets the shore."
The bill is in response to complaints from Ohio Lakefront Group members that the state has asserted control over private land by using the ordinary high water mark - a surveying point set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers - as a property line.
State Sen. Robert Gardner (R., Madison) floated a compromise that would allow public access on a five-foot-wide strip along the lakeshore.
DNR continues to support using the ordinary high-water mark as the line, Mr. Lynch said.
Mr. Gardner, who owns a lakefront house near Madison, said his proposal is part of a continuing effort to "find middle ground."
"It may die, but if it does, these property owners along the lake would be foolish. They tell me they have thousands of members, but I tell them there are a lot of people from across the street to the Ohio River," he said.
In a teleconference call that the National Wildlife Federation arranged, two former directors of the state Department of Natural Resources yesterday criticized the bill.
Frances Buchholzer, DNR director under Republican Gov. George Voinovich to 1991 to 1995, said if the bill becomes law, Ohio would take a "backward step toward unenlightened times."
"Quite frankly, it boggles the mind and makes no sense," said Ms. Buchholzer, who joined Joe Sommer, DNR director under Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste from 1991 to 1995, in urging citizens to press their lawmakers to oppose it.
Mr. Carek, chairman of the Ohio Lakefront Group, accused DNR officials of spreading false information and using closed-door meetings with senators to kill the bill.
He said the Ohio Lakefront Group hasn't been able to compete with DNR lobbyists, in particular the agency's deputy director, former Republican state Sen. Jim Carnes of southeast Ohio.
The Ohio Lakefront Group's board discussed the proposed "five-foot-wide" strip for public access and found "varying support," Mr. Carek said.
"What they are trying to do is create in statute an easement on people's property. They can't do that. It would be an easement without paying you for it. They're trying to create rights that don't exist," he said.
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