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Great Lakes Article:

Case shows life's not always a beach
State Supreme Court takes up issue involving shoreline access.
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 Lakes shoreline.

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 edge.

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 trespassing.

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 since 1967.

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 land.

"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.

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