Lake Erie coastal policy receives
Residents clash with state over erosion-control rules
By James Drew
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
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
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,"
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.