Who can walk the beach in Michigan?
ST. CLAIR SHORES - Nancy Lonskey rides her bicycle to the end of Benjamin Street in St. Clair Shores on summer evenings to enjoy a view of Lake St. Clair from a vacant waterfront lot.
"It's all about sitting and doing nothing in our fast-paced world," Lonskey said. "It's so calming watching that fabulous sight."
Lonskey values the spot, but so do waterfront neighbors who are suing to take possession of the land residents have shared since the area was platted in 1915.
After four years and no resolution, tempers are short on Benjamin Street.
From disputes over walking on the beach to standing on lots like the one in St. Clair Shores, courts increasingly are being asked to settle battles over what's often considered a birthright: Access to 11,000 inland lakes and four Great Lakes that give Michigan the second-largest shoreline of any U.S. state.
Among the disputes now before Michigan courts:
• The Michigan Supreme Court is expected to decide by July whether property owners control Great Lakes beaches to the water's edge or some portion should be reserved for the public. A Court of Appeals panel determined last year that walking in the water is the only way to avoid trespassing.
• A Supreme Court-appointed visiting judge in 34th Circuit Court in Roscommon has delivered the high court's determination that it's illegal to construct seasonal private "marinas" at the end of public roads that dead-end at the lakefront involving Houghton and Higgins lakes.
• Several lawsuits continue statewide over deeded easements for "back lot" owners who bought their property believing they obtained lake access rights.
"Lakeshore property is dear and that causes conflict between those few who can own the resource and the majority who believe it should be a commonly owned resource," said Keith Schneider, deputy director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a group aimed at protecting open land and clean air and water.
Schneider complains that growing conservatism in Michigan's courts has recently resulted in interpretations of law that favor property owners' rights over the large public interest in water access.
Property owners, on the other hand, say they paid the high price, are burdened with high taxes and deserve to enjoy their water frontage without intrusion. In some cases, they have suffered from harassment and vandalism.
"We have developed into a much coarser society where some lakefront owners are justifiably concerned about behavior," Schneider said. "If people didn't leave beer bottles and garbage and dog poo and misbehave while enjoying the lakeshore, we all would get along better."
Access to Michigan's lakes and streams will always be an issue, said Lawrence Walker, a Detroit attorney who specializes in property law.
"Our state is unique in nature. It's beautiful and our waterfront has always been valuable. We want to experience that connection," he said. "The days when million-dollar condos are built up and down any of our waterways, even within Detroit, is not far into the future. As that happens, there will be less and less access for others, and this fight will go on."
A showdown is looming on the shores of Houghton and Higgins lakes. A visiting judge, appointed by the Supreme Court because the local judge had conflicts of interest, last month ordered an end to the common springtime practice of building seasonal marinas where public roads dead-end into the lakes.
The spaces that are supposed to be for small-boat launching, swimming and fishing have been clogged with massive docks and boatlifts that spread out of the narrow rights-of-way in front of private lakefront homes. The fight was in the courts for years, with prior rulings on the local and even Supreme Court levels having little impact.
"Would you think it's OK to build a garage on the on-ramp for a freeway? Of course not, but that's what these people are doing here," said Marty Prehn, who lives in Macomb County's Chesterfield Township and owns waterfront property on Houghton Lake.
State Rep. John Stakoe, R-White Lake, has proposed legislation that would outlaw overnight docking at road ends or parallel lake shores. Rep. Joel Sheltrown, D-Gladwin, has proposed legalizing the practice but giving townships the right to issue and deny permits.
"When I was a kid, my grandfather used to take us out on Higgins Lake as a treat, and it was through a road-end access," Sheltrown said.
On Oakland County's Pine Lake, near Middle Belt and Long Lake roads, Rosalyn Kin and her family are looking forward to putting their dock back in the water this summer, but they still don't have full access to the water frontage they thought they bought 10 years ago.
"We don't have a boat. We've been waiting all this time for things to be settled," Kin said. "The judge let us put in the dock at the end of last season, and we are very excited about putting one in this year. It was one of the reasons for buying the home. It was advertised with lakefront docking privileges."
Two years after they paid $475,000 for the home with a deed that said they share two-thirds of the front lot neighbor's 100 feet of lake frontage, the neighbor filed a suit claiming full possession of the property. The neighbor had the Kins' dock removed and planted shrubs that still restrict their lake access to a 4-foot-wide stairway.
A panel of state Appeals Court judges in February 2002 ordered Oakland Circuit Court to restore the Kins' access. The most recent ruling allowed the dock but didn't resolve the landscaping problems.
The fight has been followed by lake property owners statewide as a possible precedent-setting case.
About 40 residents of Benjamin Street in St. Clair Shores fear no end is in sight to their fight. They were sued four years ago by two neighbors who live closest to the waterfront lots, claiming they should have sole possession. On May 6, a Macomb County Circuit judge will hear objections to an earlier order to share the property.
"The bottom line is that if we back out, those two get control of the lakefront that was meant to be community property," said Robert Knowles, a Benjamin Street resident and treasurer of his neighborhood association. "We've been told they could gain by up to a half million dollars apiece in property value, and our property values would decline."
The battle started with concerns about privacy, said Beth Schienke, daughter of one of the plaintiffs and a law school student in Lansing.
"My parents never intended to take the land, but they wanted to be assured that it would be used in a way that didn't diminish their property value," she said. "We've had people stand at the property line, 5 feet from the house, shouting obscenities into our windows."
The Great Lakes beach-walking dispute also started with an argument between two neighbors in the Lake Huron shoreline community of Greenbush. It landed in court and has worked its way to the state Supreme Court.
Since a panel of state Court of Appeals judges suggested last year that public access should be limited to walking only in the shallows of the Great Lakes and not dry land, a few property owners have built fences to the water's edge to keep others out.
The Michigan United Conservation Clubs and National Wildlife Federation have supported establishment of the historic high water mark as the limit of public access. The Michigan Land Use Institute has suggested a compromise, allowing the public to stroll in the "splash zone," those few feet where the sand near the water's edge is damp.
Tina and Ron Stalsberg wondered last week what they should do when they saw a "no trespassing" sign posted on a fence on a beach of the east arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
"We go to Traverse City once a year for our anniversary and that's our favorite place to walk," Tina Stalsberg said. "We saw the sign and wondered, what does this mean?"
The Fremont couple continued their walk, uninterrupted, but closer to the water's edge.
"I grew up near Muskegon. I walked on the beach all the time, and most people don't mind one bit, as long as you walk by the water and don't treat it like it was yours. We saw the fence and thought, 'This is terrible.'"
All other Great Lakes states allow beach walking, but only because they also have no legal definitions. However, a court battle over use of Lake Erie's shore may soon push Ohio into the same dilemma now faced by Michigan.
Access issues can be as large as the 3,200 mile beach-walking battle or as small as looking for enough room to cast a fishing line.
"It's getting harder and harder," U.S. Postal Service employee Eddie Jones said, standing on a seawall at the edge of the Detroit River upstream from the Belle Isle Bridge.
"On a nice day, they are shoulder to shoulder around here. You can get to some spots early on a morning and have a guy show up and tell you that's his place. And he means it."
You can reach Doug Guthrie at (313) 222-2359 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doug Guthrie - Detroit News