Michigan, known for it’s water, beaches and shoreline, has a long history of disputes over waterfront private property and what is commonly known as the public trust doctrine: regardless of property ownership, the sovereign (in the U.S., the state and federal government) holds some certain resources in public trust, including the shoreline between high and low tide. Thus, private property owners with a beach may not prohibit the public from accessing the shoreline other than below the mean high tide.
A recent decision by the Supreme Court of the United States further codified the public trust doctrine. In Gunderson v Indiana, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Gunderson’s regarding their beach front property. The Gunderson’s filed suit in Indiana, challenging ordinances that allowed for public access in the boundary between state-owned beaches and private land under the “ordinary high water mark” method of the public trust doctrine. The Gunderson’s, along with other property owners in Indiana, sued claiming these ordinances violated their private property rights. They claimed that under the private property rights, they have the right to exclude access to the shoreline and the beach from the public.
The state of Indiana relied on the public trust doctrine. Using the public trust doctrine, Indiana argued that when it became a state, it received land which it holds in trust for the public. These public lands include the shoreline below the ordinary high water mark- where vegetation begins, usually– and it does not matter that these lands are sometimes under water.
The Indiana Supreme Court sided with the state of Indiana and against the property owners. The Gunderson’s appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, arguing that the Indiana decision ignored long-standing Great Lakes state’s positions that private property rights trump the public trust doctrine. The Gunderson’s also argued that the Michigan Supreme Court’s decision in Glass v Goeckel, a case similar to the Gunderson’s, was wrongly decided and private property rights trump public trust. The Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal, allowing the ruling of both the Indiana and Michigan Supreme Court’s to stand. Thus, in these cases, the public trust doctrine trumps private property rights.
Michigan Governor Whitmer called the refusal by the Supreme Court to hear the case ““good news for our Great Lakes and for people across the state.”
“We in Michigan are defined by our water,” she said in a statement. “Whether you’re fishing, swimming or climbing the dunes on Lake Michigan, so many memories are made on the shores of our Great Lakes. Today’s decision is an important step in making sure that people across the state and from all over the world can continue to enjoy (the) Great Lakes and make new memories here in Michigan.”