Cherished Tradition Sparks Battle over Beach Access along Great Lakes

Walking along the waterfront is a cherished activity in the Great Lakes region, with its thousand miles of shoreline. But some worry that a lawsuit might lead to limits on the beach access people have long enjoyed.

GREENBUSH, Mich. — Walking along the waterfront is a cherished activity in the Great Lakes region, with its thousand miles of shoreline. But some worry that a lawsuit might lead to limits on the beach access people have long enjoyed.

Take, for instance, Joan Glass, who marches past the "Keep Out" sign at the edge of her neighbors' yard and scrunches through ankle-deep snow.

It's still winter -- hardly prime time for a leisurely stroll along Lake Huron. But to Glass, what matters is being able to come here whenever the mood strikes her.

"As long as they don't come up on your property or your house, I think everyone has a right to walk up and down these beaches," she says. "The lakes are there to be enjoyed."

The Michigan Supreme Court hears arguments Tuesday in the case, which is drawing attention from groups representing property owners, businesses, environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts.


"What's at stake is losing control of our beach," said Ernie Krygier, president of Save Our Shoreline (SOS). The property rights advocacy group has tangled with state officials over landowners' authority to clear beach vegetation.

But Keith Schneider, deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, said a ruling in the group's favor would continue a trend in the state courts of "stripping the public of its rights and conferring them to a group of generally wealthy private property owners."

Michigan isn't the only Great Lakes state debating the matter. A property rights group in Ohio filed a lawsuit last year over Lake Erie beachfront ownership.

Glass, 73, lives in rural Alcona County. The deed to her land, purchased in 1967, includes an easement allowing her family to walk along an edge of a waterfront lot to reach the lakeshore.

Glass says her neighbor -- Richard Goeckel -- bought the property containing the easement in 1997 and began "harassing" her family as they made their way to the lake. She filed a lawsuit, which eventually was broadened to also address a swath of the beach itself. Glass said she had a right to be there; Goeckel said she was trespassing.

"This isn't just about me any more," Glass says. "It's become a whole issue of who can or cannot use the lake."

Scott Strattard, an attorney representing Goeckel, said his client was unhappy with Glass for trimming shrubbery along the path and felt she treated the beach as though she owned it as much as he did.

In part, the clash was triggered by a sharp decline in Great Lakes water levels in the late 1990s. The drop-off exposed wide areas of previously submerged bottomlands, raising the question of who owned them. Over the years, courts have dealt with the issue, but disagreement persists.

For Glass, land below the high water mark belongs to the state and is open to everyone under the public trust doctrine, a position supported by several environmental groups including the Land Use Institute.

A judge sided with Glass, but was overruled last year by the Michigan Court of Appeals, whose written opinion drew criticism from both sides.

The appeals court said the state owns land below the high water mark, but owners of adjacent riparian property -- in this case the Goeckels -- have exclusive use of it and can kick others out.

Attorney Pamela Burt, who represents Glass, said the decision created "a hybrid that's really unfamiliar to people." She is asking the state Supreme Court to overturn the ruling, saying it forces beach walkers to keep their feet in the water to avoid trespassing.

"The water can be cold, even in summer, and in some areas it's rocky and slippery," Burt said. "The effect would be to curtail use."

Schneider, of the Land Use Institute, voiced another concern. If Goeckel and SOS win, he said, beach walkers will begin seeing their path blocked by fences and "No Trespassing" signs.

"There are folks who own beachfront property and don't want their neighbors or members of the public to be there," he said. "That is a huge shame, and it will affect the tourist industry of this state."

Krygier said few, if any, shoreline owners would try to halt beach walking. Most have no problem with it but they want to protect their property from abuse, he said.

Trashing the beach is the last thing on Glass' mind.

"I just don't want to lose my right to walk over to the beach and sit," she said. "I never had any problem for years, but all it takes is one person to mess things up for everybody."

Source: Associated Press