Indiana ruling stands in case of private property vs. public trust doctrine

September 15, 2019

A legal dispute in Indiana over private property rights and the public trust doctrine ended in February when the U.S. Supreme Court chose not to hear the case. In 2018, Indiana’s Supreme Court ruled that public use of the Lake Michigan shoreline extended to the lake’s “natural ordinary high water mark.” Some lakefront property owners argued that the “water’s edge” should instead be used as the legal dividing line. The Indiana justices disagreed: “At a minimum, walking below the natural [ordinary high water mark] along the shores of Lake Michigan is a protected public use.”

This year, Indiana lawmakers are considering legislation (SB 553) that would define other rights of the public to use the shoreline — for example, boating, fishing, swimming, bird watching and sunbathing. The bill would define in statute the “Lake Michigan shore” as public trust land that extends to the high water mark.

According to Wayne State University’s Great Lakes Law, Ohio and Michigan also have had important public trust cases over the past decade and a half: in 2011, the Ohio Supreme Court established the “natural shoreline” (where the water usually stands when free from disturbing causes) as the legal dividing line; in 2005, the Michigan Supreme Court set the line as the ordinary high water mark.