Groups Urge Lake Erie Shoreline Remain in Public Trust

Groups Urge Lake Erie Shoreline Remain in Public Trust

Stop now, before you rob the Lake Erie shore from Ohio’s 11 million citizens and hand it over to private property owners. That’s what a former state natural resources director and conservation groups are warning Ohio lawmakers. The debate revolves around Ohio House Bill 218, which proposes to strip thousands of acres of Lake Erie shoreline from the public and hand it over to adjacent private property owners.

William Nye, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources from 1971-1975, said the bill violates longstanding state and federal supreme court decisions that charge the state with the responsibility to hold title to the lands and waters of Lake Erie in trust for all of the people of Ohio. Nye, also an attorney, said that any attempt by lawmakers to abandon the state’s control over the shore up to the ordinary high watermark would be struck down by the courts. The groups including the Ohio Environmental Council, the League of Ohio Sportsmen, Great Lakes United, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Ohio Coastal Resource Management Project blasted the proposed legislation, saying that it amounted to a giveaway of public lands.

If this bill passes, there may be many negative consequences for Ohio:

  • The public’s right to boat, bird-watch, fish, swim, and wade along the shoreline could be severely restricted.
  • It could be open season for private property owners to construct whatever structure they like along Lake Erie. In just a few years, oil rigs, fences, and private piers could stick out into the lake from Toledo to Ashtabula.
  • Ohio’s shoreline could continue to erode, dumping could become prevalent again, and lakefront owners could be able to fill in portions of their beaches to expand their land base.
  • Private landowners who live along the lake could enjoy a giveaway of public resources of immense proportions.
  • Sensitive marshland and other lake lands that provide a nursery and critical habit for fish and wildlife could be threatened by development.

 

“This bill is Robin Hood in reverse. It robs from the public and gives to the privileged few. It’s grand larceny, and the public gets nothing in return,” said Jack Shaner, a spokesperson for the Ohio Environmental Council. Under current Ohio law, the state can allow private landowners with property next to the lakeshore to build boat docks and other structures to access the lake or to protect their adjacent property from erosion.

The groups coordinated their efforts and released a letter opposing the bill. The letter was co-signed by Nye and three other former directors of the Ohio DNR: Francis S. Buchholzer, Joseph J. Sommer and Robert W. Teater. In the letter, the former Ohio DNR directors call House Bill 218 “bad for Lake Erie and bad for all Ohioans” and criticize its “irresponsible efforts to abandon Ohio’s lake and coastal resources to an uncertain future.” The letter attributes the bill to “a small but vocal handful of coastal landowners… seeking to extend their control over resources that are the heritage of all Ohioans.”

A substitute bill is in the works. There is speculation that the new bill will be more moderate than the original proposal, but still will lower the ordinary high watermark – the legal boundary between Lake Erie’s public trust lands and upland property, as recognized by the Ohio DNR and upheld by the courts. The conservation groups warned that any attempt to tamper with the high watermark would be illegal and a violation of the public trust.

“For 200 years, the state has protected the public’s right to fish, boat and wade along the shoreline. Suddenly, some lawmakers want to reverse course and scuttle the public trust.Why? What a cruel way to mark Ohio’s bicentennial,” said Edith Chase a longtime advocate for the lake and president of the Ohio Coastal Resource Management Project. Elaine Marsh of Great Lakes United pointed out that public investment in Lake Erie pays dividends to all.“The economic, environmental and recreational value of Lake Erie is totally dependent on public dollars, public recreation, and public participation.”

 

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.