Editorial: Keep beaches accessible
Published August 4, 2005
WE THOUGHT the case was a no-brainer, but it took a ruling
by the Michigan Supreme Court last week to reaffirm the
right to walk along Great Lakes shores in front of private
The 5-2 decision, which reversed a 2004 ruling by the
Michigan Court of Appeals, is a victory for the age-old
legal principle that protects public access to lakes,
rivers, and other bodies of water.
It also runs contrary to a selfish attempt by property
rights zealots in Ohio to fence off the beach in front
of their cottages and homes on Lake Erie, a misguided
effort that continues in the General Assembly and in a
federal court lawsuit.
The decision Up North is a welcome one for millions of
Michiganders and tourists who like to stroll along the
Mitten State's 3,200 miles of Great Lakes beach, 70 percent
of which is privately owned. Ohio has only about 300 miles
of Lake Erie frontage, but the principle is the same.
The Michigan court's majority held that the "public
trust doctrine," dating back to the 6th century Roman
code of Justinian and preserved in English common law,
protects the right "to walk along the shores of the
American law has long recognized that large bodies of
navigable water, such as the oceans, are natural resources
that belong to the public, the court said. "In our
common-law tradition, the state, as sovereign, acts as
trustee of public rights in these natural resources. Consequently,
the state lacks the power to diminish those rights when
conveying littoral property to private parties."
The public trust doctrine, the court noted, applies to
the Great Lakes as well as the oceans.
The case should provide more solid footing for beach
walkers in Ohio, whose pastime is being threatened by
pending legislation and a lawsuit that would require them
to walk not on the sand but in the near-shore water, where
they might be impeded by docks and jetties.
What owners of shoreline property want, of course, is
to keep anyone but themselves off the beach in front of
their home or cottage. It's essentially an elitist proposition
that has consistently been rejected in the courts but
is gaining credence in conservative "property rights"
That claim has now been emphatically rejected by the
Michigan Supreme Court. Ohio legislators should take heed
and take steps to prevent "no trespassing" signs
from sprouting along Lake Erie beaches in the Buckeye