IN Supreme Court Hears Arguments On Lake Michigan Beach Ownership

Sep 28, 2017

Ownership of beach property on Lake Michigan is in the balance in a lawsuit heard before the Indiana Supreme Court Thursday. The case centers on the question of public versus private property, and it could have far-reaching consequences.

Don and Bobbie Gunderson owned a property in Long Beach, Indiana, on the Lake Michigan shore. Their attorney, Peter Rusthoven, argues the Gundersons’ property includes any part of the beach not covered by water.

“You own to the water’s edge,” says Rusthoven. “Water comes up, there’s your boundary line. Water goes down, there’s your boundary line.”

Rusthoven stuck to that point even when presented with an unlikely hypothetical by Justice Steven David.

“Am I correct counsel,” asked Justice David, “that if for some reason the shores of Lake Michigan were to recede 100 feet because of solar effect, evaporation, that your client would acquire [that new land]?”

“Yes,” replied Rusthoven.

But the state of Indiana, the Alliance for the Great Lakes, and two other groups disagree. Jeffrey Hyman, who represents Alliance for the Great Lakes, says water can cover the beach permanently or temporarily, but the beach is still part of Lake Michigan.

“Lake Michigan is a highly variable and dynamic system, water levels are rising and falling,” says Hyman. “That land on the shore is part of the bed of Lake Michigan.”

This case matters because if the state owns the beach up to what’s called the ordinary high water mark—whether it’s covered by water or not—then the beach is public property and anyone can use it.

The court did not issue a timetable for its ruling.