Whose waterfront is it anyway?

A closer look at Sturgeon Bay and the Public Trust

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Whose waterfront is it anyway?

An important court case in Wisconsin will offer one answer to that question – – and it could have important implications for public access and open space in the redevelopment of Michigan’s and Great Lakes’ shorelines. 

The case, which is on appeal from a trial court that sided with the public’s interests, involves a developer’s proposal to build a hotel on the shores of Sturgeon Bay, on land that was formerly submerged and belonging to the state and citizens before being unlawfully filled in during the last century.

Some community officials back the development as economic development that benefits the city. But a group of concerned citizens and public trust defenders, called Friends of Sturgeon Bay, has sued the city to block the developers’ attempt to lock up shoreline. They pose the question: why would rare public filled land be privately developed, when private land can be acquired for the development on adjacent private lands, and the open space can be preserved? Wisconsin citizens asked FLOW’s founder, Jim Olson, to file an amicus brief on their side. We posed questions to Jim about the case and why FLOW has chosen to get involved.


How did your brief come to be?

An attorney from Madison, Wisconsin, contacted me by phone in early June to ask me if I would be willing to write an amicus brief for FLOW to submit to the Court of Appeals in Wisconsin. Because of FLOW’s mission to protect citizens’ rights in our lands and waters protected by the 150-year-old public trust in the Great Lakes basin, she asked us to support the trial court decision blocking the City of Sturgeon Bay’s sale of historically filled bottomlands of Lake Michigan. It’s in the middle of the waterfront in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, which is a popular tourist destination on the Door Peninsula.

What is the fundamental public trust issue at stake in the Sturgeon Bay litigation?

The fundamental issue for the citizens of Sturgeon Bay is the loss of a state-owned bottomlands parcel on the city’s waterfront. The city picked the parcel up from a foreclosure sale, packaged it with a redevelopment project, and entered into an agreement to sell it to a private developer. The rub? There is no legislative grant or disposition from the state to the city or any of the previous owners, as required by public trust common law.

Under the common law, states on behalf of citizens are the sovereign owner of the bottomlands and waters of the Great Lakes. Under this principle, state sovereign bottomlands cannot be transferred for purely private purposes. This is because there are certain commons like the Great Lakes that are not property. Government can’t sell off Great Lakes bottomlands for private gain, because it violates the limitations conferred by people on government under our state constitutions. Just because owners of adjacent private land fill up the Great Lakes over decades doesn’t change the constitutional and public trust limitation.

The City claims it had been filled for so long when it acquired the property, it took the title of the previous owner who the city claims acquired title by adverse possession (known colloquially as “squatter’s rights”) as the result of a fill and use that went on for more than 50 years. Under public trust law, filled or unfilled bottomlands below the Ordinary High Water Mark of the Great Lakes cannot be conveyed by the state or anyone for a private purpose or development. All a state can convey is occupancy to use, subject to reservation of state title, public trust and control, and revocation in the future. Private “squatters” can’t claim ownership over public trust bottomlands that the state can’t convey in the first place.

The fundamental legal question is whether a private person or the city can acquire filled bottomlands based on the legal doctrine of adverse possession. Can someone squat, in this case fill, state sovereign land for several decades, and claim ownership while no one was looking? This is the question I was asked to brief under public trust law, because if the state can’t convey public trust bottomlands, filled or otherwise, to a private or even public corporation, how can a title be acquired by adverse possession?

The answer is: “it can’t.” A landowner might drive over his neighbor’s side yard to get to the back forty for several decades in full view while the neighbor sits on his or her hands, and claim adverse possession, because state laws authorizes a court to grant relief as a result of the open trespass and inaction on the part of the neighbor. In effect, the legislature has declared that the neighbor has consented to a conveyance of the driveway because of the inaction. But when it comes to state public trust bottomlands of the Great Lakes, it can’t be done. Why? Because if the legislature doesn’t have the power to convey these public trust lands outright, it can’t pass a law that would authorize someone to own public trust land by walking through the back-door over a period of years.

What are the implications outside of Sturgeon Bay – in Michigan, for example?

The question is critical for citizens in states with hundreds of towns and cities, like Sturgeon Bay, on lakeshores and harbors of the Great Lakes. There are around 175 such communities in Michigan alone. If historically filled bottomlands can be taken by adverse possession, hundreds if not thousands of parcels owned by the states for the benefit of citizens could be up for grabs, at a time when public access, recreation, boating, navigation, open space, are more critical than ever for communities recovering from the taint of the rust-belt era. This is an opportunity for rust-belt communities to embrace their best public asset and become water-belt communities.

Why does it merit FLOW’s participation?

FLOW must participate to make sure the public trust doctrine is not distorted to justify loss of state public trust bottomlands to private control and ownership. One of our areas of concern has been to help cities and towns on the Great Lakes preserve public access, open space, and recreation and parkland along their waterfronts. With our expertise on public trust law, we determined that in most states, there is no adverse possession of public trust bottomlands, because it circumvents– end-runs –the rule that only a legislature can transfer within a very narrow range bottomlands to private or public entities, like a city, and it must be for a public trust use, like navigation, open space, recreation, boating, fishing; but the legislature has no power to convey its sovereign state title for purely private purpose development. We must make sure cities and developers don’t take public trust lands in which the whole people have a legal right of public access, use, and enjoyment by adverse possession.

I noticed in the brief you cite a recent Michigan court decision regarding Mackinac Island, a case in which you were involved. How does it relate to this case?

It’s directly relevant, because a private corporation bought a commercial docking operation, partly on top of historical fill dating back into the 1800s, and claimed it owned the filled land and dock on state public trust bottomlands based on adverse possession. The Court of Appeals, sitting as court of claims, granted summary disposition to the state, and tossed the private corporation’s claim out of court. The Court in effect declared, “These filled bottomlands cannot be owned privately by any one, because they rightly still belong to the state as trustees for the benefit of current and future generations.” States and citizens must vigilantly maintain and protect these public sovereign trust lands and waters, because they support the values important to all, including long-term quality of life and economic prosperity. There is a private market for private property, and that is for private development, not the Great Lakes.


 

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A closer look at Sturgeon Bay and the Public Trust