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What are your beach-walking rights on the lakeshore?

Alexander Sinn • Feb 11, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Long walks on the beach are what bring people to Grand Haven. But is it legal to walk in front of private beachfront properties?

Walking along the Lake Michigan shoreline is not illegal, but the issue nearly required a U.S. Supreme Court decision after a dispute erupted between beach-walkers and property owners in Indiana last year.

The Indiana Supreme Court resolved the case late last month before it was brought to the federal courts.

So, what are your rights?

The current legal definition in Michigan allows the public to walk along the lakeshore up to the high-water mark — as long as you can get your feet wet, you’re not violating the law.

Grand Haven City Manager Pat McGinnis said the current rule is clearly defined, though there have been some disputes within the city limits. Beach-walking is common on the north side of the Grand River channel, in front of beachfront homes along North Shore Drive.

Enforcing a beach-walking complaint could create a catch-22 for public safety officers, McGinnis said. 

“If you tell (beach walkers) to leave, you might be violating their rights,” he said. “If you don’t tell them to leave, you might be violating the property owner’s rights.”

The high-water mark along the Lake Michigan shore is determined by the regular lapping of waves, which is not affected by strong tides like the ocean, but does not change as frequently as smaller, inland lakes.

Developments along the lakeshore are defined in detailed measurements, McGinnis said, and typically extend to “the water’s edge.”

“If the courts change their position on the high-water mark, it may change how people access the beach,” he said.

The city has not received complaints about the issue in recent years, McGinnis added.

Grand Haven Township Community Development Director Stacey Fedewa said the township rarely receives specific beach-walking complaints. Most disputes along the lakeshore are among property owners and those wanting to build a new house.

“It is typically brought up at public meetings when a property owner is proposing development and neighbors express concern over people encroaching onto their land,” she said.

The Indiana case saw a 4-0 ruling by its Supreme Court in favor of the state over a Long Beach couple, who claimed exclusive ownership of the beach to the water’s edge. This ruling maintained using the high-water mark to indicate where private and public lands meet. 

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