Will wonders never cease?
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 the community.
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 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.
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 heads.
There might, in other words, have been a way to resolve whatever issues that prompted the original suit amicably. 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 belongs to us all.