Some homeowners on Great Lakes coasts are concerned about how state governments decide where the lake ends and private property begins. In one state… landowners are pushing legislation to protect their private property rights. But the bill worries recreation and environmental activists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports:
Some homeowners on Great Lakes coasts are concerned about how state governments decide
where the lake ends and private property begins. In one state, land owners are pushing legislation
to protect their private property rights. But the bill worries recreation and environmental
activists. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Julie Grant reports:
Dennis Bring is a big, burly guy who looks like he wouldn’t be scared of anything. But he says
he is scared. He’s afraid of the bureaucrats at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
They say the land he once owned is no longer his, simply because of the erosion caused by Lake
It started more than twenty years ago. That’s when high waters on Lake Erie started to batter his
shoreline property and erode the bluff. Bring decided to use concrete and large limestone blocks
to protect it. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources required him to get surveys, pay for
engineering, and construction. It cost thousands of dollars. Then he was told he had to sign a
lease agreement, to lease the land that he thought he already owned.
“They said it wasn’t a big thing. But when we got it, we found out it was 17 to 20 pages long and
basically they had the rights to our property and we had basically no rights and they could come
on our property at any time.”
The cost of the lease isn’t that much, but Bring’s deed says he owns that land. It’s been in the
family for three generations and he pays taxes on it. But the state also wanted him to carry a
million dollars worth of liability insurance on the erosion protection structure.
So he called the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to complain. A state regulator told Bring
that he no longer owns the land because anything up to the high water mark, including the eroded
part that once belonged to Bring, actually belongs to the state.
“And I asked him, I said, ‘You’re telling me the lake is your property, correct?’ And he said ‘Yes,
that’s our property.’ And I said, ‘According to my gist on this, is that your property is damaging
my property. I’m trying to protect this property.’ But I said, ‘In turn you’re making me pay back
what is already mine.’ He said, ‘And we could tear your structure out if we wanted to.’ And then
I hung up the phone, and my wife and I were scared to death.
The state plans to enforce its claim that it owns up to the high water mark. But many lakefront
owners say the state is taking more than its share. They want Ohio’s jurisdiction pushed back
toward the lake – to the low water mark. The difference between the two adds up to thousands of
acres along Ohio’s 262 miles of coast.
Brian Preston grew up fishing in the marshes around Toledo. Speaking at a public meeting on
behalf of the environmental group, the National Wildlife Federation, he argued that the state is
right, anything the lake touches belongs to all the people, not just those who own the adjacent
“We’re not talking about their land; proximity doesn’t imply ownership. Those 262 miles in the
land going into the water is our land. Just because it’s in front of their house doesn’t make it their
But property owners disagree. They’ve pushed a bill in the Ohio legislature to move state
ownership back toward the lake. It would also take away much of the state’s authority to regulate
the shoreline. The private land owners say the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers already monitors
the Great Lakes shoreline. Homeowner Jim O’conner says that’s enough regulation.
“For years, shoreline structures have been built along the lake and have been fine. The Army
Corps has kept a pretty close eye on it. But now this program has turned into a radical mess by a
few people that have extreme radical views on what private property owners, shoreline owners,
should relinquish. In order to live on the lake you’ve got to relinquish your property.”
The state says without its additional regulation there would be all kinds of problems. That’s
because in the past houses and other structures have been built too close to the shore and
eventually storms eroded the dirt from underneath them and they fell into the lake. Some
scientists are also concerned that the engineered structures that protect the land from erosion end
up destroying public property. State geologist Don Guy says erosion provides the sand size
material that builds Ohio’s beaches.
“And by armoring the shore, we’re eliminating that source of beach-building material. And as
waves continue through natural processes to carry sediment, at least along this part from east to
west, eventually the sand is eroded from the beach at a given site and there’s nothing to replenish
that beach. So that’s maybe the hidden impact of all the shore protection.”
And that’s one reason the Ohio Department of Natural Resources wants to protect the beach.
State representative Tim Grendell sponsored the bill that would change the boundary from the
high water mark to the low water mark. He says it won’t have any negative impact on the
lakeshore or the environment. He says the state has taken control over more land than it should.
He notes that property deeds often say landownership stretches to the low water mark. Grendell
says state shouldn’t regulate beyond that.
“It recognizes what the Ohio constitution recognizes, that a government agency of the state has no
power to take away people’s property by redefining what they own.”
But most Great Lakes states regulate to the same boundary as Ohio. They say state ownership is
at the high water mark. The state of Ohio says it’s willing to drop some of the things it mandates.
For example, it might drop insurance requirements and help pay engineering costs of shoreline
structures it approves. But Ohio says it will not support turning public ownership over to private
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Julie Grant.