Jerry Davich: Boundaries complicate Lake Michigan beach trips
Jerry Davich email@example.com July 7, 2012 9:48PM
Jerry Davich. | Jeffrey D. Nicholls~Sun-Times Media
Updated: August 9, 2012 6:14AM
Today’s column is part of a summertime series regarding the spacious, fragmented and largely misunderstood Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as the park’s superintendent, Costa Dillon, and Lake Michigan’s many beaches.
Costa Dillon is even more polarizing than I initially thought.
The Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore superintendent was the focus of a previous column, and reader feedback arrived fast and furious. Region residents either respect Dillon while singing his praises or they have nothing good to say about him. Period.
“In all of my time working with him, I know the superintendent to be a person of tremendous integrity in all dealings,” said park volunteer Mary Chuman. “He has proven himself to be a very dedicated and responsible public servant.”
Or, “Mr. Dillon doesn’t care who he bullies in the name of his public image and the park’s reputation,” said Frank McCarty, of Gary, who is against the park’s alleged encroachment on his neighborhood in the Miller section of the city.
As I noted before, Dillon doesn’t take all this too personally.
“Somebody’s always going to be unhappy with something I do,” he explained with a shrug. “Some things simply have to change, and it’s my job to make those changes.”
In future columns, I will explore such controversial issues in more detail, but today I want to touch on a topic more relevant to readers who are dealing with record-high temperatures — refreshing beach access to Lake Michigan.
The catch regarding the lake’s public access has always been this: The beach, sand, water, dunes, waves and swimming are all free, free, free. But the parking to access those amenities is another thing. It’s like advertising free gasoline but charging $4 a gallon to use the gas pump.
Yet this is how many lakefront communities keep those pesky beachgoers, including me, off their pristine, private beaches. And there’s the rub, “private.”
Sure you can drag your family of four, three lawn chairs, two coolers and an umbrella along the lakefront to, say, the Beverly Shores or Ogden Dunes or Dune Acres beachfronts. But don’t park in those communities to get to the beach without having a permit or knowing a friendly resident (or, in my case, a relative).
Some areas along the shoreline in, say, the town of Porter, the National Park Service has “walking easements” that permit the public to travel across private property, but not to stop or otherwise use the private property.
“In some places, this is private property, in some places the National Park Service owns the land, in some places the NPS owns an easement, and in some places the towns own the land,” Dillon explained. “Regardless of who owns the land, it becomes State Trust property below the Ordinary High Watermark.”
Ah yes, one of the largely unknown keys to this issue is what’s called the Ordinary High Watermark, the legal dividing line on Lake Michigan between public and private ownership. It can be quite complex and a bit confusing, but let’s jump in anyway.
For Lake Michigan, both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Indiana Natural Resources Commission have recognized the Ordinary High Watermark to be at an elevation of 581.5 feet, according to the International Great Lakes Datum (1985).
Although the actual elevation of Lake Michigan fluctuates, the Ordinary High Watermark is fixed. For comparison sake, the lake’s current water level is 578 feet, give or take a few inches, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.
When the lake’s water level is above the watermark, the state does not own any of the dry beach. But when the water level is below the watermark, as it is now, the state does own part of the dry beach. But how much of that beach varies from community to community, sand dune to sand dune, and so on.
Since the lake’s water level is now roughly 3 feet lower than the fixed watermark, you can take a yardstick and stand at the watermark to roughly estimate how much beach is private versus public. But it’s not that simple.
Under federal and Indiana law, the bed of Lake Michigan below the Ordinary High Watermark “is held by the state in trust for the people as a whole, and the property so held in trust as common property for all, from which all may partake so long as in the taking no attempt to deprive others of like privilege.”
In other words, all areas below that watermark are owned by the state and available for public use. Private land ownership and local government jurisdiction do not extend past that watermark. Plus, the park’s boundary extends 300 feet into the lake, established by Congress so that the National Park Service could protect public safety.
Where the NPS does not own the land, the boundary of the park roughly follows the “toe of the dunes” in Ogden Dunes, Dune Acres and Porter Beach. (In Beverly Shores, the land boundary is the middle of Lakefront Drive.)
Confused? I don’t blame you. But my point is this: Our Lake Michigan beaches should not be deemed off limits simply because we do not have easy access to many of them. I suggest you contact Dillon or his staff if you have a question regarding which beach to access and how to do so.
The park’s general number is 926-7561 or visit www.nps.gov/indu. For more info (and handy graphics) on the Ordinary High Watermark, visit www.in.gov/dnr/water/3658.htm.
Remember Lois, the 73-year-old Schererville woman with terminal cancer who I wrote about in previous columns after she first called my voice mail with a haunting message?
Her voice dripped with sad sincerity, telling me she had finished her will and had discussed her end-of-life plans with her family.
“You don’t do a bucket list. You just live it day by day,” she told me last summer.
However, she also joked to at least live a few more months to receive a few more Social Security checks from Uncle Sam.
“I put in all that money through the years. I deserve some of it back,” she quipped last month.
Well, I’m sad to say that Lois died last Sunday. I attended her visitation on Thursday, but only to sign her guestbook. I’m told she arranged for the July 5 ceremony so it didn’t cause any scheduling problems on July 4 for mourners. That’s so Lois.
Anyway, I’m going to miss her funny, heartfelt and uplifting phone messages. I’m sure her family and friends will miss so much more about her.
I’ll leave you with what was printed on her memorial card, which had a photo of her with her two little dogs.
“Roses are red, violets are blue. I’m so glad to hear from you. Leave me a message, it doesn’t have to rhyme. And I will get back to you in a very short time. Bye now!”
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