Case shows life's not always a beach
State Supreme Court takes up issue involving shoreline
By David Eggert
South Bend Tribune
Published March 9th, 2005
LANSING -- The state Supreme Court on Tuesday waded into
a fight over the public's access to 3,200 miles of Great
What started six years ago as a seemingly routine spat
between neighbors sparked a debate in the high court over
the public's access to beaches and landowners' control
of property along the water's edge.
During 75 minutes of oral arguments, a packed courtroom
watched as the justices considered a major issue in the
dispute: who owns or controls the portion of private beach
below the high water mark that extends to the water's
An appeals court said the state owns the land, but added
that owners of waterfront property have exclusive use
of it and can kick others out or require them to stay
in the water. The decision left both property owners and
public access advocates unhappy.
On Tuesday, the high court justices appeared to question
parts of the earlier ruling.
Chief Justice Clifford Taylor asked if people who've
built houses right next to the waterfront inadvertently
could be stripped of ownership if the court agreed the
state owned the beach up to the high water mark.
If landowners were given complete control up to the water's
edge, however, Justice Marilyn Kelly worried Michigan
would become the only one of eight Great Lakes states
to compel beach walkers to stroll in the water to avoid
Another issue was the public's long-standing right to
navigate water and whether that extends to walking on
wet sand along the water.
The case involves a dispute between Alcona County neighbors
Joan Glass and Richard Goeckel, who live along Lake Huron
in the northeastern Lower Peninsula.
Glass sued Goeckel in 2001 after he wouldn't let her
on his property to walk the beach, which she'd been doing
Scott Strattard, an attorney representing Goeckel, told
justices that people walking the shore do so at the generosity
of property owners. He argued that the "sky won't
fall" if the court says Goeckel and others own and
have exclusive use of everything to the water's edge.
Strattard said most property owners don't care who's
walking along their waterfront. But he argued property
owners should retain the right to say who can use their
"Don't change existing law because two people don't
get along. My client has the right to say no to Ms. Glass
and yes to Mr. Smith," he said.
But Pamela Burt, Glass's attorney, argued Goeckel should
not have the right to bar Glass from the shoreline.
"Her prime and basically only use of the shoreline
is to walk the beach," Burt said.
Groups backing Glass's cause include the Land Use Institute,
some environmental groups and Democrats in the state Senate.
The lawsuit doesn't affect public beaches, but 70 percent
of shoreline in the state is privately owned, according
to the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit environmental
group. The case has drawn attention from groups representing
property owners, businesses, environmentalists and outdoor
enthusiasts who filed friend-of-the-court briefs.
The conflict between beach owners and beach users was
heightened by a sharp decline in Great Lakes water levels
in the late 1990s. The lower levels exposed sometimes
wide areas of previously submerged bottomlands and raised
ownership questions over the newly revealed land.
The state departments of Environmental Quality and Natural
Resources filed a brief with the Supreme Court saying
the state should own land below the high water mark while
the public should be able to walk near the water's edge.