Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb took this photo of lakeshore erosion in Beverly Shores from a state police helicopter over Lake Michigan on Sunday. Photo by Gov. Eric Holcomb
Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb took this photo of lakeshore erosion in Beverly Shores from a state police helicopter over Lake Michigan on Sunday. Photo by Gov. Eric Holcomb
Gov. Eric Holcomb issued an executive order Thursday directing state agencies to take steps to mitigate the significant erosion of the Lake Michigan shoreline in Northwest Indiana — but the Republican stopped short of declaring it a state disaster area.

Holcomb said he recognized the need for additional state action after flying over the shoreline Sunday in a state police helicopter and viewing the effects of the lake's unusually high water level, combined with strong winter storms, on the beaches, bluffs and other properties along the lakefront, particularly in Beverly Shores, Ogden Dunes, Portage and Long Beach.

"Our administration has been monitoring the erosion along the Lake Michigan shoreline, but I wanted to see the damage firsthand," said Holcomb, who also personally photographed the shoreline from high above.

"I signed an executive order to initiate new action steps and further express our dedication to preserving one of our state's crown jewels for all those who live, work and play along the shoreline."

The order directs the Indiana Department of Natural Resources to continue expediting emergency repairs sought by shoreline property owners and requires the Indiana Department of Homeland Security to seek federal grants for short- and long-term mitigation projects.

It also authorizes the Homeland Security director to coordinate the local public safety response when necessary and appropriate, and to quantify damages to the affected areas for inclusion in a possible future disaster declaration that potentially could unlock federal aid to the Region.

In addition, Homeland Security must develop and launch a website to post comprehensive information about the shoreline erosion situation from federal, state and local authorities, according to the governor's order.

Finally, Holcomb is directing all units, agencies and departments of state government to "consider and explore ways that they may be of assistance in this matter."

State Sen. Karen Tallian, D-Ogden Dunes, who along with state Rep. Pat Boy, D-Michigan City, has been begging the governor to take notice of Northwest Indiana's shoreline erosion, property damage and threatened infrastructure, said following the governor's order: "Finally."

"It's about time that the governor took this erosion problem seriously," Tallian said. "After almost two months since I sent my original letter to the governor asking for an emergency declaration, his response is long overdue."

She added that she hopes Holcomb issues a disaster declaration "as quickly as possible," as the Democratic governors of Illinois and Wisconsin already have to better address erosion and storm damage to their Lake Michigan shorelines.

State Rep. Mara Candelaria Reardon, D-Munster, who last week extracted a promise from Holcomb to visit the Region's shoreline, said she's happy the governor "has taken action to address a very serious problem in Northwest Indiana."

"I will remain in communication with the appropriate agencies to ensure that they work with local leaders to get all the pertinent information needed for the next steps. I remain committed to the protection of our lakefront," she said.

Seawall regulations


Meanwhile, advocates for lakefront homeowners in Long Beach, who previously sought to bar public access to portions of the Lake Michigan shoreline, appear to be using the emergency situation to renew their efforts to limit local government authority over seawalls.

Earlier this year, the Indiana House did not advance House  Bill 1031 (http://iga.in.gov/legislative/2020/bills/house/1031), which would have given the Indiana DNR exclusive authority to authorize the construction of seawalls on Lake Michigan, regardless of the seawall regulations of any county, city or town.

Now state Rep. Jim Pressel, R-Rolling Prairie, is proposing to amend Senate  Bill 100 (http://iga.in.gov/legislative/2020/bills/senate/100) to mandate, in an emergency situation, that local governments approve or reject permits for seawall repairs, or new seawalls, within 10 days — otherwise the permit automatically is approved.

Pressel said he's not seeking to limit public access to the lakeshore. He's simply working to ensure lakefront homeowners have a quick remedy when their porches, gazebos or septic systems are threatened by the lake.

"I just want people to be able to protect their property that we legally let them put there. That's really all I want to do. I don't want to change anything else," Pressel said.

The House Local Government Committee is expected to consider approving Pressel's proposal at its Feb. 27 meeting.

But Robert LeMay, president of the Long Beach town council, said Long Beach already promptly has issued emergency seawall work permits to the nine lakefront homeowners who requested them due to rising water levels and winter storm damage.

"This amendment appears to be a solution in search of a problem," LeMay said. "We don't have a problem getting these permits approved in a short period of time."

He suggested Pressel's amendment is intended to help a single lakefront homeowner, Anna Voortman, bypass local regulations because her seawall installation was shut down years ago after she failed to secure all the necessary permits for the work.

"No permits have been denied for anybody who needs emergency repairs," LeMay said.

According to the Indiana secretary of state, Voortman is the registered agent of the Long Beach Lakefront Homeowners Association, an organization that supported a lawsuit that sought to give lake-adjacent property owners control of the shoreline to the water's edge and the right to exclude the public from "their" beaches.

Instead, the Indiana Supreme Court in 2018 ruled in its landmark Gunderson v. State decision that Indiana owns, and always has, the shoreline of Lake Michigan up to the ordinary high-water mark.

That mark is defined as the line on the shore established by the fluctuations of water and indicated by physical characteristics, such as a clear and natural line on the bank, shelving or changes in the soil's character.

Within that area, individuals are entitled to use the beach for navigation, commerce, fishing, walking and other recreational purposes, according to the state's high court.
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