State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, addressed the House Committee on Judiciary Jan. 13, 2020 to oppose a proposed Lake Michigan shore bill. (Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune)
State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, addressed the House Committee on Judiciary Jan. 13, 2020 to oppose a proposed Lake Michigan shore bill. (Alexandra Kukulka / Post-Tribune)
The Indiana House Committee on Judiciary heard testimony Monday from residents, interest groups and legislators on a bill related to public and private access to the Lake Michigan shoreline.

And while the state representative who proposed the bill said it will affect a small number of property owners, three Northwest Indiana legislators reminded committee members that the bill will affect everyone, from lakeshore visitors to homeowners.

The proposed bill “provides that the public of Indiana has a vested right to engage in recreational activities” from the water’s edge to the natural ordinary high water mark, unless the mark is further inland than the boundary of a private property.

The bill states that recreational activities include walking, jogging “and other activities in which the participants occupy a space on the beach only temporarily, but does not include lying on the beach, camping and other non-transient activities."

The bill also “provides that where a private property extends below the natural ordinary high water mark, the State of Indiana relinquishes its ownership of the shore of Lake Michigan with the respect to the part of the private property extending below the natural ordinary high water mark."

The bill also protects property owners from liability. Rep. Doug Miller, R-Elkhart, proposed the bill, he said, because in his “professional life” he is a general contractor and property developer.

Those who support the bill, the majority of whom said they own property in Long Beach, said they have no problem with people accessing the beach from their property temporarily. The interest groups and legislators that oppose the bill said it will prohibit public access to Northwest Indiana beaches.

Miller said that in the 2018 Gunderson v. State decision, which ruled the shoreline until the natural high water mark belongs to the State of Indiana, the court ruled that the general assembly make “determinations” about the shoreline.

The Gunderson ruling took away their right to limit ownership to friends and family without getting any compensation from Indiana, the lawsuit states.

“I want to be really clear about this,” Miller said about the bill. “It doesn’t impact any public beaches ... this legislation has the potential to impact only 4% of the properties along the entire stretch.”

For the “first time in years” residents haven’t been able “groom their property” for beach access or install seawalls “where they need to be installed to protect their property,” Miller said.

“They’re not able to use their property for quiet enjoyment, much like they have in the past, as a result of (the Gunderson v. State) decision," Miller said.

Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, reminded the committee that the Lake Michigan shore extends for 45 miles in Indiana “and half of that is in my district.” While the majority of those who supported the bill were from Long Beach, Tallian said the committee needs to remember the bill will impact everyone along the shore.

“You have to be really careful what you do,” Tallian said.

Tallian said it is “sadly ironic” that the committee discussed bill Monday because last week Tallian and Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, sent a letter to Gov. Eric Holcomb asking him to declare a state of emergency for disaster money to address beach erosion in Porter and LaPorte counties.

“We no longer have a beach in Northwest Indiana, is pretty much the case,” Tallian said. “We have a mess, and we’re going to be losing properties up there.”

There are “miles of properties along Lake Michigan that are about ready to fall into the lake," so the committee should find better ways to address seawalls, Tallian said.

“The question of what’s in this bill is just a minor part of what that whole solution has to be,” Tallian said.

Boy reminded the committee that during the 2018 budget session, the state initially planned to allocate $800,000 toward a study of erosion in Lake Michigan but the funds ultimately were taken away.

State Rep. Ragen Hatcher, D-Gary, addressed the committee about the Miller section of Gary, which has three public beaches that anyone can enjoy “without issue, and we like it like that."

As the proposed bill is written, Hatcher said, it seems to focus on a single community.

“I would hate to see a bill be passed for one small section of the lake, when the rest of us don’t necessarily agree with it,” Hatcher said. “I feel like there should be some city solution to what’s going on in Long Beach.”

The House Committee of Judiciary will discuss the bill again Jan. 27.
Copyright © 2020, Chicago Tribune