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Hoppe: Indiana's Lake Michigan beaches belong to everyone

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The Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling that the state’s Lake Michigan beaches belong to the people — and not just those people with enough money to purchase property abutting those beaches — is a much-needed win for community.

The beach in question happens to be in the town where I live, with the appropriate (if unoriginal) name of Long Beach. Fewer than 1,200 people are fulltime residents here. The town was incorporated in the 1920s, when going to the beach was called “bathing.” Since then, generations of folks — many of them Chicagoans — have flocked to what, in summer, can feel uncannily like a Midwestern version of a Mediterranean atmosphere.

At a time when it increasingly seems as though there’s nothing in this country that money (lots of it) can’t buy, the Supreme Court’s unanimous 4-0 decision plants a flag on the side of commonwealth. The beach, the judges effectively said, belongs to all of us.

This was also a win for history. According to the court’s finding, written by Justice Mark Massa, the land between what’s considered the ordinary high water mark and continuing into and under the waters of Lake Michigan has been held in trust for the people of Indiana since the state’s inception in 1816. Justice Massa found the historical basis of this trust in ancient English common law, the U.S. Constitution and the Indiana Code. Until the state legislature decides otherwise, wrote Massa, the beach along Lake Michigan is community property.

This is what the Long Beach Community Alliance (LBCA), in league with one the state’s oldest environmental advocacy groups, Save the Dunes, Indiana University’s Conservation Law Center, and the Alliance for the Great Lakes, has argued from the start. It’s a big deal because as those who live along the lake have seen in recent years, the pressure for money to push history and community values aside in favor of private interests, favoring the few at the expense of the many, has been unrelenting. Too often, local boards and governing bodies have acquiesced to this pressure for fear of incurring the financial burdens associated with the kind of bullying litigation that the deep pockets of private owners can bring to bear.

That’s what makes this ruling doubly sweet. Had it not been for the Long Beach Community Alliance, a local citizens’ uprising, funded by grassroots donations, the assertion of private control over public property would almost certainly have prevailed. Money, pure and simple, made the legal and historical baselessness of that assertion powerful. But public determination, over years, to not accept this affront has been rewarded.

My wife and I joined the LBCA in 2012, when we first heard about this fight. At first blush, it seemed the odds were stacked against us. This is Indiana, after all, a place where private property rights can, at times, seem the holiest of holies. But, in their ruling, the state’s Supremes honored a still higher principle: the rule of law.

It is important to note here that not once in this arduous journey through the courts was the fundamental issue of the public’s right to access the Lake Michigan beaches ever overturned by a judge. We won every time. It is also worth noting that the people didn’t ask for this fight. None of this would have happened had the Gundersons, the private property owners who originally brought the case, not felt emboldened to overreach, claiming a right to land that existed only in their imaginations.

There might, in other words, have been a way to resolve whatever issues prompted the original suit amicably. But, sadly, we live in an era when, to paraphrase an old saying, money doesn’t talk, it bludgeons. And that’s yet another reason to celebrate the Indiana Supreme Court decision: Not this time. The beach is for everyone.