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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Erie coastal policy receives low marks
Residents clash with state over erosion-control rules
By James Drew
Toledo Blade
10/06/03


COLUMBUS - A major battle between private property owners and the state over control of Lake Erieís shoreline is being waged here, more than 130 miles from the waterís edge.

The dispute centers on a requirement that lakeshore landowners seeking permits through the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to erect erosion-control walls or build or replace docks must first sign documents giving the state legal control over the often-submerged property from where these structures are placed. The state then typically leases that "publicly owned" property back to the private landowner for 50 years.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Timothy Grendell (R., Chesterland) would restrict the stateís control over those lands located below what is called the lakeís "High Water Mark" - a surveying point set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for all of the Great Lakes.

Some groups, including the Ohio Environmental Council, oppose the measure as a land grab that will turn over control of public property - portions of the lake and shore - to private owners.

But a group of property owners like Nancy and Raymond Ginter of Vermilion, Ohio, said the land management practices employed by the state are a form of blackmail to control the property for which they must pay taxes on.

In late 1999, the Ginters decided to have two anti-erosion jetties constructed on each end of their lakefront property.

Mr. Ginter said he called ODNR to get a permit to build the jetties, and an employee told him the state preferred an "armor stone revetment." Mr. Ginters said that is a technical term for a "big pile of rocks."

The Ginters paid a professional engineer $3,600 to design the anti-erosion project and within three weeks they received "conditional" approval from two federal agencies and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.

The remaining "condition": ODNRís Office of Coastal Management in Sandusky had to approve the project.

But after more than a year, Mr. Ginter said an ODNR employee told him there was a problem because there were "nearly extinct minnows" off their lakfefront property. Another official later said the statement was false, Mr. Ginter said.

After several more months, Mr. Ginter said an ODNR field representative phoned him and said their permit application had been "found" in a file with others. After paying another $1,800 to an engineer and surveyor to make changes to the project, Mr. Ginter said he received a letter from ODNR that indicated the time limit for their original permit application had expired.

"I had to start the whole process over again," he said.

In August, 2002, Mr. Ginter received his new permit from ODNR. But to get it, he said he had to sign a submerged land lease with the state.

"Even though I absolutely disagree with the entire premise of the lease, after all I had been through, I believed I had no choice other than to sign the lease in order to obtain the permit," he said.

ODNR Director Sam Speck said he is examining Mr. Ginterís allegations, but he defended the stateís program as critical to protect Lake Erie.

In addition to adhering to federal and state law, Mr. Speck said the ODNR is in charge of protecting all Ohio citizensí rights to a legal principle called the "public trust." The principle allows the state to regulate the Lake Erie waters from the boundary with Canada to the point where the high-water mark intersects the natural shoreline, including Maumee Bay and Sandusky Bay.

Those who own lakefront property above the high-water mark have the right to reasonably use the water in front of their property - but the state and the rest of its citizens also have rights, Mr. Speck said.

"This is not the state against the folks on the lake," he said.

Nevertheless, that is where the battle lines seem to have been drawn.

The Ginters are now among an estimated 2,200 members of the Ohio Lakefront Group, an organization mostly composed of residential property owners along Lake Erie that is battling ODNR over property rights.

David Carek, group chairman, said members object to state actions such as taking deeded property without compensating owners, creating a costly and burdensome permitting process, and overriding local zoning authority by designating shoreline as "coastal erosion zones."

Several property owners, including Jim OíConnor of Sheffield Lake, Ohio, said their deeds show their ownership ends at the low water mark, not the high water mark.

The stateís stance means it is seizing dry beaches from private property owners, said Mr. Carek, an engineer who lives in Vermilion.

Sandy and Tom Wade live along Lake Erie in Erie Township, Ottawa County. Mrs. Wade said their house and land are all at or below the high water mark.

ODNR hasnít contacted the Wades about a submerged lands lease, but Mrs. Wade said sheís worried. She said the state agency approached some of her neighbors in the late 1990s but backed off when they refused to sign leases.

"The amount of money is not great. Itís the fact I could lose my property," she said.

The Ohio Lakefront Group has tried for four years to convince the legislature to pass a bill to remove most of ODNRís power to regulate the Lake Erie shoreline. About 100 members of the group appeared in Columbus last week

Representative Grendellís measure is expected to die in committee, but he hopes to craft a compromise.

Mr. Grendellís bill includes a provision that would define the stateís ownership of the shoreline as extending only to and below the low water mark.

Of the 10,000 square miles of Public Trust waters in Lake Erie, about 3,500 are in Ohio, said Mr. Carek, chairman of the Ohio Lakefront Group. The strip of land between the high and low-water marks is less than six one-hundredths of 1 percent, he said.

But Mr. Speck said if the state changes the boundary of private property ownership from the high to the low water mark, it would "give public property to private individuals without any charge."

"If you extend full rights out to the low water mark in a period when the lake is going down, how much additional land and how much access that the public has previously had to boat off the coast, to swim off the coast, to fish off the coast would be taken away from them?" he said.

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