Ohio is paying the Ohio Lakefront Group $6.1 million to settle a class-action lawsuit the 7,000-member private-property-rights organization brought in response to what it saw as an attempted “land grab” by the state when Great Lakes water levels receded dramatically several years ago.
As more Lake Erie shoreline was exposed, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources claimed more Lake Erie beach was becoming available for the public. The lakefront owners’ group, though, in a 7-0 Ohio Supreme Court ruling in 2011, got a verdict in its favor which essentially said the boundary line between private and public land isn’t nearly so tied to fluctuating water levels.
After that verdict, the lakefront group of property owners entered into negotiations with the Ohio DNR for compensation, said Tony Yankel, Ohio Lakefront Group’s president.
Much of the $6.1 million settlement is going to attorney fees, lease repayments, and costs associated with a third-party administrator.
But $2.3 million will be divided among about 1,500 Ohio Lake Erie shoreline property owners recognized as members of the class that brought the suit, said Mr. Yankel of Bay Village, Ohio.
The most any of them can get is $1,788.19. Payouts will be determined by length of ownership and other factors between 1998 and 2011, he said.
Details of the settlement and distribution will be discussed at the group’s annual meeting at 7 p.m. today at the Emerald Event Center, 33040 Just Imagine Dr., Avon, Ohio.
“I think it was fair to all sides,” Mr. Yankel said. “It’s a big recognition of a fact they did something wrong.”
Each of the Great Lakes states handles the question of public-private boundary lines along beachfront property slightly differently. In general, visitors are usually advised they are not trespassing if they are wading through water.
In 2009, a state appeals court said property lines along the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline change with the water level.
It said land beneath the water is open to the public and land above the waterlines belongs to lakefront property owners.
The basis for the ruling was drawn from case law in an 1878 property-rights dispute decided by the state Supreme Court and subsequent legislation that made the boundary between public and private land the “natural shoreline.”
But in 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that public access to Lake Erie begins at the point “where water usually stands when free from disturbing causes.”
The high court said public access to the shoreline extends to the “natural shoreline” — not at the high-water mark of privately owned land.
Mr. Yankel said most shoreline property owners are reasonable about people who are well behaved. But he said the decision was important to his group members so they could assert their right to file trespassing charges against those who aren’t or who cross their land in the middle of the night.
“It was worth it,” he said. “We needed to maintain the right to exclude people less than desirable.”
The Ohio DNR, in a statement released by agency spokesman Matt Eiselstein, said it is “pleased that this matter, which has spanned more than a decade, has finally been concluded.”
The agency also said it “will continue efforts to identify and promote public access to Lake Erie while encouraging visitors to respect the rights of the private property owners along the shoreline.”
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