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Supreme Court Won’t Take Case to Decide Great Lakes Beach Access

The U.S. Supreme Court will not hear an Indiana case on exactly who should have access to Great Lakes beaches. The case, BOBBIE GUNDERSON, V. STATE OF INDIANA, hoped to settle the question of legally defining the Ordinary High Water Mark on the inland Great Lakes. If SCOTUS took the case, it could have had a far-reaching impact over the entire Great Lakes region.

This means that the lower state courts rulings stand in which the public’s right to access the Great Lake’s shoreline after the U.S. Supreme Court announced Tuesday it was denying a petition to hear an appeal of an Indiana Supreme Court case over the matter.


Get Off My Sand!

Great Lakes Beaches
Fences Could Have Become a Common Sight on Michigan Beaches

The case started in Indiana where in 2012, Bobbie and Donald Gunderson filed suit against the Town of Long Beach for allowing the public to use their beachfront property. The Gunderson’s held the position which they said their property extended to the water’s edge. In 2018 the Indiana Supreme Court disagreed and said their property only came to where the high-water mark usually hits the beach. Indiana’s position is that the state holds beach in trust for public use. Now the case is in front of the highest court of the land and the entire Great Lakes tourism industry is holding their collective breath.

Michigan stands to be impacted the most if the Supreme Court takes the case and agrees with the Plaintiffs. With over 3,200 miles of shoreline, Michigan has the longest freshwater coastline in the US and the second longest coastline next to Alaska. In 2014 tourist visitors to Michigan spent $22.8 billion, much of that along the state’s shoreline. Mostly on or near a Michigan beach.

Shoreline Cottage Owners Impacted

Great Lakes Beaches
Will Your Beach Walks Cease?

Deeds written for land along the beach sometimes state that their land extends right to the water’s edge. Thus, these owners have cared for and paid taxes for that land. To confound the problem further, small cottages along the Great Lakes shores have been torn down and replaced by million-dollar homes. Some of these fresh water millionaires feel entitled to a private beach where no one treads.

Michigan’s Tourism Industry Threatened

Walking on a Great Lakes Beach
A Michigan Tradition of Beach Walking is Threatened

There was high potential that the US Supreme Court’s ruling on this case may negate the Michigan Supreme Court ruling on this issue. In 2005, Michigan ruled on Glass v Goeckel, which held that the public had the right to walk along the shores of Michigan’s Great Lakes shoreline on land below the ordinary high-water mark. This land is owned by the state and considered part of the lake bottom lands that are held in trust for citizens for Great Lakes beach access.

Many Wanted the Case Thrown Out

Great Lakes Beach Access

Indiana, and many shoreline towns and groups have filed briefs stating that the Supreme Court should not take the case. The original plaintiffs, Bobbie and Donald Gunderson no longer own the beachfront property. The traditionally conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy wants the high court to take on the case. The Mackinac Center holds the Michigan Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling was unclear and said there are several questions that the Supreme Court could help clarify. They hold that the public trust doctrine erodes property rights for beachfront owners.

Walking on the Ice of the Great Lakes
Exploring a Winter Beach on Lake Huron

If the Supreme Court took the case and ruled against the public trust doctrine for Great Lakes shoreline, Michigan Resorts, Hotels, and Cottage owners that seasonally rent out their beachfront homes may have been be forced to tell their clients to stay put and not walk the beach. Beachfront owners may have been entitled to put fences along their property right up to the water’s edge to block access.

The Supreme Court Great Lakes Access ramifications were huge and we are relieved that the public trust access standard continues

Questions About Great Lakes Beach Access

Can the public walk my beach property on Lake Huron? – Yes. The public has access to walk the beach or shore line up to the Ordinary High Water Mark.


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Mike Hardy

Author of a fun loving and event blog covering topics of the Upper Thumb of Michigan , the wind energy capital of the Great Lakes. Offering great trove of information on Wind Energy, Cheeseburger in Caseville, Saginaw Bay, Sailing.

2 Responses

  1. Oh boy! This one is a doozy! It will be interesting to see what happens. Will you be following up on this article as the case moves along?

  2. Jeanne Henry says:

    Good job distilling this issue. Reasonable lakeshore owners in our Caseville area enjoy meeting shoreline walkers. I, too, like to walk beyond my own lake frontage. What’s not cool is when walkers become near-squatters, trying to set up blankets & chairs, friends and music, soccer games and trysts in sand in front of our home.
    A clear ruling would help, but don’t think SCOTUS can be informed enough to help neighbors stay good neighbors.

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