Jersey issue reminds of Lake Erie property dispute

Jane BeathardIssues of public domain and private ownership along the Jersey Shore in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy bring to mind the 2004 lawsuit of the Ohio Lakefront Group against the Ohio DNR.

A recent CBS News report (
said beachfront property owners in a small New Jersey town are opposed to a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to lay down a sand buffer against future storms, extending their communal beach 150 feet into the Atlantic Ocean.

The new strip of beach would be open to public access. The Jersey owners fear their land values will drop as a result. The Corps is threatening to claim public domain and lay the sand with or without local consent. In the meantime, at least one beachfront owner is constructing his own rip-rap storm barrier, restricting public access across his property in the process.

There are similarities with the lawsuit 6,000 Ohio property owners on Lake Erie filed against the Ohio DNR nine years ago. At issue in that case was whether private property lines extended to the water or ended at the "ordinary high-water mark." That mark is an imaginary line drawn by the Corps that leaves a strip of beach open to the strolling and fishing public.

The Ohio DNR eventually dropped out of the suit and the attorney general, along with the National Wildlife Federation and the Ohio Environmental Council, carried it on.

In a murky 2011 decision, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled private property stops at the natural shoreline (where the water meets the land). Since that point rises and falls as Lake Erie water levels fluctuate, both sides of the lawsuit claimed victory. However, general consensus favors the property owners' position.

One thing the court firmly decided was that the Corps' "ordinary high-water mark" did not exist.

Tidal waters like the Atlantic Ocean are physically and legally different from Lake Erie. But the central question remains the same. Are ocean and Great Lakes shorelines (and beaches) in the public trust and open to all? Or, are they private and under the control of adjacent property owners?

Categories: Ohio – Jane Beathard

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