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Lake Michigan shoreline bills advance in Indiana Senate

February 22, 2019

Two pieces of legislation that would define public and recreational use of Lake Michigan’s shores and give jurisdiction of seawalls, beach grooming and land walls to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources have made advances in the Indiana Senate this week. 

Senate Bill 581 defines the shore zone of Indiana’s northern most lake as land between the ordinary high water mark of Lake Michigan and private lakeside property lines to regulate seawalls and control the flow of water across private property along the lakeshore.

The bill’s author, Sen. Blake Doriot, R-Syracuse, offered an amendment to SB 581 that would define the ordinary high water mark as 581.5 feet above sea level. Doriot said the specification would better align the bill’s language with a recent United States Supreme Court decision to reject an appeal that would have restricted public access to the lakeshore.

In last week's decision, the nation’s highest court denied a petition for writ of certiorari in Bobbie Gunderson, et vir v. Indiana, et al., 18-462, which would have privatized much of the 45-mile Great Lakes shoreline. U.S. Supreme Court justices declined to take the appeal filed by unnamed landowners, who challenged a February 2018 Indiana Supreme Court ruling that preserved public access to the shore of Lake Michigan from the waters edge inland to the ordinary high water mark.

Doriot’s amendment passed by a voice vote without objection, as did an additional amendment proposed by Republican Sen. Chip Perfect, who said his amendment would provide more balance to the legislation. Perfect explained that in the process of expanding public access and use of the lakeshore, certain protections still needed to be included for property owners.

“The amendment will use the existing language we have in Title 14 around public access to provide some indemnity to the property owners, and does it in a way that if someone inappropriately accesses the property, or even under invitation, from those walkways or the beach, the owner of the property does not assume responsibility or incur liability,” Perfect said. He added that anything currently in law relative to trespassing liability would not be impacted.

The amended SB 581 passed nearly unanimously through the chamber Thursday with a 48-1 vote, and now goes to the House of Representatives for review. The single vote against the bill came from Sen. Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores.

Another lakeshore-related bill, Senate Bill 553, passed with a similar amendment defining the ordinary high water mark at 581.5 feet above sea level. Author Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Odgen Dunes, offered the change to better align her lakeshore legislation with SB 581.

Tallian’s bill would define public use of the lakeshore as activities ranging from sunbathing, swimming and surfing to fishing, boating with non-motorized watercraft such as canoes and kayaks, and other activities that don’t constitute a public nuisance or interfere with others’ right to use the beach. It also would assign oversight of the shoreline to the Department of Natural Resources, which could designate some oversight responsibilities to local law enforcement and government entities. It would additionally require any construction on the Lake Michigan shore to be subject to DNR regulation.

The amendment to SB 553 passed by a voice vote, and the legislation was order to engrossment on second reading.

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