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Great Lakes Article:

Shoreline residents eye lawsuit
By Leo Shane III
Port Clinton News Herald

COLUMBUS -- Coastal property owners lobbying for changes in state permits and land leases along Lake Erie said they will consider filing a class action lawsuit if lawmakers don't get involved.

David Carek, president of the Ohio Lakefront Group, said his organization has already spoken with several attorneys who said they would represent the angry homeowners in a case against the state.

"They think we have a good case," he said. "We have data behind us that backs our position up. But our focus for now is trying to get this bill through the House."

Carek's group -- and dozens of coastal land owners who have been making weekly trips to the Statehouse -- are backing a bill which would establish the lake's low water mark as a property's farthest boundary, do away with current submerged land lease requirements and ease permit regulations for docks and similar structures.

The state Department of Natural Resources supports a second bill that would reorganize its office of coastal management and make other changes to the permit and lease processes. That bill would not deal with the low water mark issue.

Department Director Sam Speck testified before a House committee Wednesday that ODNR observes the high water mark as the accepted, legal boundary for Ohio coastal properties.

"The statute here is very clear in what we have to do," he said. "We have to issue permits for certain kinds of behavior. We don't have an option."

Carek's group claims the area between the high and low water marks is deeded private property

that the department has been taking by forcing homeowners to sign land leases.

For the last two weeks property owners have testified before the committee chronicling problems with confusing permit applications, hostile coastal management officials and leases on land they believe is rightfully theirs.

Speck said the department has done its best in recent years to try and correct such problems, last year creating the coastal management office to provide a central point for all Lake Erie issues.

"Hopefully, with the way we have restructured, we will avoid these type of things in the future," he said. "Anything less than good service is unacceptable."

But the director added that good service doesn't mean ignoring the department's responsibility to oversee public coastline.

On Wednesday several lawmakers challenged Speck's interpretation of property law, saying they sympathized and agreed with the property owners use of the low water mark.

Speck, who serves as chairman of the Great Lakes Commission, said six of the other eight Great Lakes states use the high water mark as the start of public land, and the department is simply protecting public land.

"We all have an interest in protecting private property rights," he said. "No one should have a fear of losing their home as a result of coastal management. ... The bottom line is we need to find a balance between protecting the public rights to access and also protect the rights of private owners."

The two bill sponsors -- Rep. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, and Rep. Tom Neihaus, R-New Richmond -- will spend the next few weeks trying to create a compromise bill.

Grendell said many issues -- including simplifying the permitting process -- overlap and will be easy to resolve. But he did not say how or if a compromise could be reached on the boundary issue.

Carek said if the compromise legislation does not include recognition of the low water mark and elimination of submerged land leases against owners of small, private properties, his group will go ahead with its lawsuit.

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