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Great Lakes Article:

Editorial: Keep status quo on beach walk
Petoskey Review
Published March 28th, 2005

We love a good walk along the beach as do most Michiganders. It's a privilege of living in this state.

That's one reason, certainly, why there has been much interest in a current Supreme Court case involving the public's access to Great Lakes beaches and landowners' rights to control property along the water's edge.

In short, the case - Glass v. Goeckel - could affect people's ability to walk along Michigan's 3,200 miles of shoreline, 70 percent of which is privately owned.

The main issue in the dispute is this: Whether the portion of beach below the high water mark that extends to the water's edge should belong to the state or to landowners.

Currently, property owners have clear ownership of their land all the way to the water's edge. For ages, they've turned a blind eye, for the most part, to those strolling the water's edge and passing by their homes.

The current case could needlessly change how this "unofficial system" operates.

It stems from a dispute two neighbors have had for seven years over beach access. Joan Glass, who has owned property near Lake Huron since 1967, has been walking on the lake by way of an easement along one edge of a waterfront lot, across the street from her house. Her neighbors, Richard and Kathleen Goeckel, acknowledge she has the right to use the 15-foot-wide easement, but say she overstepped the bounds when she began trimming shrubs along the walkway and lingering on their property approaching the water.

She sued, and an Alcona County judge sided with her. That was overturned by the Michigan Court of Appeals, which ruled that the state owns the land below the high water mark, but owners of property such as the Goeckels have the right to exclude people from using it or require them to stay in the water.

That didn't sit well with Glass and her attorney, and now the case is at the Supreme Court, where a decision is expected by the end of July.

We would hope the court would uphold a 1930s state high court ruling that beachfront property owners' land extends all the way to the water's edge.

The alternate judgment would be for the court to rule that the land directly adjoining the water's edge should be held in public trust and open to unfettered public access.

We hope the court keeps the status quo, and not because we're opposed to public access to our waters and beaches. But there are a couple factors to consider here before jumping the gun:

- For decades, beach-goers have strolled the beaches, and beach-front property owners have understood this comes with the territory of owning coveted lakeside property. This has been a pretty peaceful relationship. Requisite in this "understanding," of course, is that beach walkers respect private property and not linger, loiter and litter.

- It'd be a mess if the court rules that the land in question is public right of way. Land titles would need to be redocumented and property values would be affected. This is not fair to beach-front property owners who, like it or not, paid high costs to live on the lakes. They should not now be penalized because two neighbors can't get along.

- No matter what the ruling, you can still walk the water's edge from Harbor Springs to Cross Village or anywhere else. Just keep your feet in the water and you have nothing to worry about.

We believe that beachfront property owners are no more likely to restrict access after a decision affirming their property rights than they were before. After all, they've had this right all along but usually only exercise it when people start ruining their property.

The court should leave well enough alone.

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