Tag: Indiana

Violation of the Public Trust: The Time Is Now for Decisive Court Action to Stop the Destruction of Lake Erie from Harmful Algal Blooms

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, these commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Last week, the Ohio EPA designated a thousand square miles of toxic green algae that spreads over the western end of Lake Erie in summer months “impaired.” This sudden reversal came after Ohio EPA filed a report under the Clean Water Act (“CWA”) with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Epiphany? No, that opportunity ended with Lent. So why did Ohio’s EPA and Ohio Governor John Kasich finally come around? A metanoia that allowed them to drop the years of delay on requiring any action by corporate agriculture, allowing them to address phosphorous reduction from runoff and climate change-influenced weather on their own time.

Why did they change their minds? Because nature doesn’t wait. But that’s only part of it:  Lake Erie fishing, boating, swimming, beaches and tourism have been severely damaged since the western third of Lake Erie turned into a green mat of algae in the summer of 2011. If that wasn’t enough, in 2014 toxic algae shut down the public drinking water supply of 400,000 people in Toledo, and another 100,000 up the coast all the way to Monroe, Michigan. Now the shadowy green mat of harmful algae is as much an annual event as the corn crop production in the Ohio, Indiana and Michigan river valleys that causes it. 

In 2014, the international Joint Commission (“IJC”) urged a 40 percent reduction of phosphorous levels in Lake Erie within four years; states like Ohio picked this target up but gave it lip service by moving the target back to 2025. Nothing has been done to set a target to prevent impairment or destruction from algal blooms. Professor Don Scavia at University of Michigan has warned that prolonged delay in achieving limits will be offset by increased global warming and extreme weather events caused by climate change.

ELPC Lawsuit for Governments Violation of the Clean Water Act

So, what else caused Ohio EPA to change its mind?  The United States EPA and Ohio EPA were about to get slapped hard by a federal court for failing to designate the waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters” in violation of the federal CWA. The Environmental Law and Policy Center (“ELPC”) out of Chicago and a team of lawyers filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court on behalf of Toledo and Advocates for a Clean Lake Erie to reverse the federal government and Ohio’s denial of reality, ELPC’s lawyers recently argued the case before Judge Larry Carr in Toledo. In a move to avoid penalties and embarrassment by an adverse ruling in May, U.S. EPA changed its acceptance of Ohio’s “non-impairment” designation and ordered the state EPA to reconsider. Last week, Governor Kasich announced that Ohio’s EPA has designated the open waters of western Lake Erie as “impaired waters.”

What does this mean? While it is obvious to the naked eye that Lake Erie and its paramount fishery, boating, swimming, tourism, and its source for drinking water have been severely impaired for years, under the CWA “impaired” means that the State in consultation with U.S. EPA and others must set targets for the maximum daily load of phosphorous from farm runoff and to a lesser degree sewage discharges. The targets have to achieve and assure unimpaired waters for recreation and safe drinking water purposes.

While ELPC will see to it that Ohio EPA’s and the feds’ feet will be held to the fire, the CWA process for setting the targets and enforcing them by rule could take years– years Lake Erie, cities and towns, tourist businesses, property owners and citizens don’t have. Funding is short, political negotiations with stakeholders takes years, and, frankly, Ohio’s goal of achieving reduced phosphorous levels to prevent reoccurring algal blooms for 2025 is too late. Chesapeake Bay was designated “impaired” decades ago, and the so-called stakeholders are still fighting over a labyrinth of legal complications. Are businesses, communities, the public and citizens supposed to suffer billions of dollars in losses and natural resource damages while Lake Erie remains severely impaired?

It Is Time for a Lawsuit 

The public trust doctrine is an ancient principle dating back to the Justinian Codes of Rome and some of the earliest court precedents in our country’s history. It holds that commons like air and water are held by each state as sovereign for the benefit of its citizens. When each state joined the Union, the sovereign title to navigable waters vested absolutely in that state in trust to protect the water and aquatic resources for the enumerated uses of fishing, navigation, boating, swimming, recreation and sustenance–drinking water—for present and future generations. The United States Supreme Court and every state in the nation recognizes the public trust doctrine. The doctrine has standards with teeth sharper than a Northern Pike: (1) no one can alienate or subordinate these public trust waters and uses for private purposes; (2) no one– not private corporations, persons, or any government or political subdivision–can impair or substantially interfere with the quality and quantity of these waters or the enumerated public trust uses; and (3) the public trust imposes an affirmative, high and perpetual duty on government to see that no alienation or impairment occurs!

So, what are we waiting for? What are Governor Kasich and the Ohio EPA waiting for?  The state Supreme Courts of Indiana, Michigan and Ohio–where the phosphorous runoff is occurring– have all recognized and adopted the common law public trust doctrine. The public trust doctrine prohibits foot-dragging like the failure to take swift definitive action against corporate farms and cities that are the combined source of this wholesale destruction of Lake Erie. To be sure, there are stakeholders with interests that must be accommodated and balanced, but not at the expense of the damage caused by the continued blatant violation of the public trust doctrine. The public trust standards are the outer limit, these standards are not discretionary, they are mandatory, they can’t be ignored and they can’t be subordinated. In other words, all of the stakeholders are subject to the non-impairment standard, and all involved are legally obligated to comply with the public trust principles first.

How is this done?  It’s straightforward at this point. The ELPC lawsuit or a new lawsuit brought by plaintiffs who are citizens, communities, organizations, property and tourist business owners should seek to declare a violation of the public trust and take steps to enforce it by ordering those contributing to the damage to immediately prevent phosphorous from entering the streams and rivers that flow to Lake Erie. Two years ago, Michigan declared its share of western Lake Erie “impaired.” Now Ohio has determined its share is also “impaired.” If it’s impaired under the CWA, it’s also impaired under the common law of the public trust doctrine. Those who are causing or contributing to the impairment must be named defendants, all or some lead defendants, including the large corporate farms and the Ohio EPA and Michigan DEQ – unless of course Michigan wants to join as plaintiff in bringing this claim forward.

Because the waters are impaired in violation of the public trust, the only question is allocating liability and holding hearings to determine the remedy– the limitations and actions required of all defendants and others to reduce phosphorous and stop the harmful algal bloom destruction of Lake Erie.

The lawsuit or lawsuits can be filed in the same way any public interest litigation proceeds. The court oversight after the BP Deep Horizon spill worked to minimize the impairment of the Gulf of Mexico. In a major settlement, tobacco companies were forced to pay damages caused to the public health in each state.

There is nothing new here, and in fact a public trust case like this would be both simple and unifying. First, the factual finding is done – there is impairment. Second, this impairment violates the public trust. Third, it is well documented to a strong degree of certainty who and what causes the harmful algal blooms. Sorting out and allocating fault is not a barrier to a public trust case, it is simply what a court does in the name of equity and justice to fairly apportion responsibility. If a hearing on the allocation and remedies is needed, then hold it and bring in the experts. There are many in Ohio, Michigan and throughout the Great Lakes region, including the fine scientific universities and groups working on the algal blooms and climate change under the auspices of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement and the IJC.

This is the time to end the impairment and destruction of harmful algal blooms in Lake Erie (and elsewhere in the Great Lakes). We have three branches of government. The courts are one.  When the other branches fail or are unable to take the action that is needed when it is needed, our constitution assigns to the courts the role of taking over the controversy, especially when the harm is severe and an imminent threat to public health, property, safety and the general welfare.

Jim Olson, President and Founder

We don’t need a bureaucracy to get around to doing something on its own time through a drawn-out process like the somewhat uncertain establishment of targets and enforcement under the CWA. Why rely only on the CWA and federal and state bureaucracies when a court can take charge, find a violation, set the target, allocate the responsibility, and order actions that reduce phosphorous and stop the destruction of Lake Erie. Ask the legally protected beneficiaries of the public trust doctrine, our citizens and businesses and communities who continue to suffer devastating harm. The time for judicial action and supervision action under the public trust doctrine is now!


Public Trust Tuesday:  A Big Win for the Public Trust

byzantine-empire-public-land.-trusts

FLOW’s organizing principle is the public trust doctrine.  What sounds like an exotic concept is quite simple.  This centuries-old principle of common law holds that there are some resources, like water and submerged lands, that by their nature cannot be privately owned.  Rather, this commons – including the Great Lakes — belongs to the public.  And governments, like the State of Michigan, have a responsibility to protect public uses of these resources.  We explicitly address public trust concerns on what we’re calling Public Trust Tuesday.


Score a big win for the public trust doctrine.

In what can be termed literally a landmark decision, the Indiana Supreme Court on February 14 ruled that the state’s public trust rights to the Lake Michigan shore extend to the ordinary high-water mark.

FLOW founder Jim Olson called the decision “exciting” and said it was an even bigger affirmation of the public trust doctrine than a 2005 Michigan Supreme Court ruling because it carefully explained the basis of sovereign public trust ownership by the state.

The ruling came in a case brought by landowners who sued the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, seeking exclusive access to all land up to the water’s edge. Public trust advocates argued that Indiana received land below the ordinary high-water mark at statehood under the public trust doctrine, and that an act of the legislature is required to deed such land to a private party.

But Olson said the Court should also have articulated a list of traditional and incidental public trust uses, like swimming, bathing, and staging, sitting or other uses that are incidental and necessary to those traditional uses that are protected by the public trust doctrine. “In finding ‘at a minimum’ walking the beach below the ordinary high-water mark is protected, the Court exercised restraint and left the scope of public trust uses unclear until enumerated by the legislature,” he said.

“The public trust is a dynamic and flexible doctrine, dependent on changing public needs and uses of public trust lands or waters,” Olson said. “Certainly, walking and fishing were predominant in earlier centuries, but the use of our public shores and beaches below the ordinary high-water mark for access and their public use and enjoyment has encompassed swimming, canoeing, kayaking, surfing, kite boarding, and similar uses. These uses for safety and convenience necessarily include staging, sitting, and even sunbathing incident to those traditionally protected uses.

The “public trust doctrine is a court-made doctrine common law doctrine, so the Court was well within its traditional judicial powers to enumerate those uses rather than defer to the legislature,” he added.


Court Confirms 45 Miles of Lake Michigan Shoreline Owned by State Under Public Trust

Court Confirms Indiana’s 45-Mile Shoreline on Lake Michigan Owned and Held by State for Public Recreation Under Public Trust Doctrine

By Jim Olson[1]

 

Another state court confirms that the 3,200 miles of Great Lakes shoreline are owned by states in public trust for citizens to enjoy for walking, swimming, sunbathing and similar beach and water related activities on public trust lands below the Ordinary High Water Mark (“OHWM”).[2]

When Indiana was carved out of the Northwest Territories and joined the United States in 1816, the State took title in trust for all waters of Lake Michigan and all land below the OHWM along the state’s 45-mile shoreline.Map of Indiana Shoreline with Counties

In 2012, the lakefront owners on Lake Michigan  in Long Beach, Indiana, filed a lawsuit against the town of Long Beach, claiming they owned all of the land to the waters’ edge. Lakefront owners asked the trial court judge to prohibit any interference with their private property by town residents and the city who used the beach as public for walking, sunbathing, swimming, and picnicking  since the town was incorporated. A group of local residents and homeowners organized into the Long Beach Community Alliance (“LBCA”),  and intervened in the dispute to defend their public right of access for walking and recreation over the wide strip of white sugar sand between the shoreline and the retaining walls and yards of the lakefront owners. The Alliance for the Great Lakes (“AGA”) headquartered in nearby Chicago, and Save the Dunes (“STD”), a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the dunes on Indiana’s shoreline, also intervened to protect the interests of their members who were citizens of Indiana and used and enjoyed the Lake Michigan shore.

In late December 2013, the trial judge ruled that the lakefront landowners could not interfere with the town or residents’ efforts to pass ordinances recognizing the land below the OHWM belonged to the state and was held in public trust for residents and citizens of Indiana.[3]

Not satisfied, the lakefront owners appealed to the Indiana Court of Appeals. In 2014, the appellate court recognized the trial judge’s ruling below, but remanded the matter back to the trial court for a more comprehensive decision on the State’s title and the public trust in the shoreline.[4] The court reasoned that the State of Indiana had not been made a party in the local suit, a prerequisite for a court ruling on a landownership and pubic trust shoreline dispute.

Another lakefront owner pressed forward with a related new lawsuit, again claiming ownership to the waters’ edge, based on their deeds that, they argued, gave them title to the waters’ edge, even if that meant their title cut off the rights of citizens of Indiana to the shoreline below the OHWM. This time the state was named a defendant, and the LBCA, AGA, and STD once more intervened.

It’s common knowledge that Lake Michigan water levels have fluctuated about 6 feet between highs and lows since the federal government started keeping records in 1860. In the late 1980s, the water levels and wave action threatened the lakefront owners’ retaining walls and homes. In 2013, the year the first court ruling came down, the water levels were so low, the distance from the waters’ edge to the lakefront owners’ retaining walls was wider than the length of a football field.

Longbeach, Ind Shoreline photo

While the knowledge may not be so common for many citizens, the U.S. Supreme Court and the courts of states abutting the Great Lakes have routinely ruled that each state took title to the waters and lands of the Great Lakes up to the OHWM. In 1892, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all of the Great Lakes’ waters and bottomlands to this ordinary high water mark are owned by the states in trust for all citizens.[5]  The Illinois legislature deeded one square mile of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s waterfront to the Illinois Central Railroad company for an industrial complex. However, the Supreme Court voided the deed, and found that the public trust in these lands and waters is inviolate and could not be sold off, alienated, or even legislated away.

Despite this history, lakefront owners the Gundersons, pushed for exclusive ownership of the beach to exclude residents from the beach between their homes and the waters’ edge.  The State of Indiana Department of Natural Resources, LBCA, AGA, and STD defended public ownership and the residents and citizens’ right to use the public trust shoreline for walking, swimming, sunbathing, and similar water-related recreational activities.

On July 24,  2015, LaPorte County Judge Richard Stalbrink wrote a near text-book-perfect decision on the public trust doctrine and ruled against the lakefront owners in favor of the state, LBCA, AGA, and STD,  confirming that the beach below the ordinary high water mark to the waters’ edge belongs to the state and is subject to a paramount public trust that cannot be interfered with or impaired by lakefront owners.[6]

First, Judge Stalbrink followed the Supreme Court cases holding that the state obtained title to the waters and bottomlands to the OHWM when it joined the Union in 1816. Second, Stalbrink ruled that this beach land below the OHWM was held in trust for public walking, swimming, fishing access, and other public recreational uses. Third, the Court confirmed that Indiana’s definition of the OHWM was proper, given that the definition takes into account the physical characteristics that define a permanent shoreline as reasonable evidence of the public portion of the shoreline.  Finally, Judge Stalbrink recognized that because water levels of Lake Michigan fluctuate, the width of the beach is subject to change, but that there is always a paramount right of the public to access the beach for proper public trust recreational activities.

As Judge Stalbrink observed near the end of his decision, ”Private lot owners cannot impair the public’s right to use the beach below the OHWM for these protected purposes. To hold otherwise would invite the creation of a bach landscape dotted with small, private, fenced and fortified compounds designed to deny the public from enjoying Indiana’s limited access to one of the greatest natural resources in this State.”[7]

 

(Author’s End Note: See rulings by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2005. Glass v Goeckel, 473 Mich 667, 703 N.W. 2d. 58 (2005), Ohio Supreme Court in Merrill v Ohio Department of Natural Resources, 130 Ohio St. 3d 30, (2011) (on remand before Court of Common Pleas, Lake County, Ohio for factual determination of OHWM); the Gunderson decision upholding public trust in Long Beach should control the decision in the companion case, LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., supra note 2, on remand to the Laporte County trial court).

[1]President and Founder, Flow for Love of Water.

[2]See Melissa Scanlan, Blue Print for a Great Lakes Trail, Vermont Law School Research Paper No. 14-14 (2014).  (Professor Scanlan proposes walking trail within public trust lands and without interference with riparian use based on public trust doctrine in the Great Lakes); James Olson, All Aboard: Navigating the Course for Universal Adoption of the Public Trust Doctrine, 15 Vt. J. E. L. 135 (2014) (Author documents the application of the public trust doctrine in all eight Great Lakes states and two provinces of Canada).

[3]LBLHA, LLC  v Town of Long Beach et al., Cause No. 46C01-1212-PL-1941. (The author, Jim Olson, discloses that he was one of the attorneys, along with Kate Redman, Olson, Bzdok & Howard, P.C., Traverse City, Michigan, in this case for the Long Beach Community Alliance in favor of public trust in shoreline).

[4]LBLHA, LLC v Town of Long Beach et al., 28 N.E. 3d. 1077 (2014). The Indiana Court of Appeals remanded to the trial court to add the State of Indiana as a party; this case will not proceed in same fashion as the Gunderson case discussed in this paper, which was decided by the same LaPorte County trial court.

[5]Illinois v Illinois Central Railroad, 146 US 387 (1892).

[6]Gunderson v State et al., LaPorte Superior Court 2, Cause No. 46D02-1404-PL-606, Decision, July 24, 2015, 22 pps. (Judge Stalbrink, Richard, Jr.); Indiana Law Blog, Ind. Decisions, July 28, 2015 http://indianalawblog.com/archives/2015’07/ind_decisions_m_709.html.; see also U.S. v Carstens, 982 F Supp 874, 878 (N.D. Ind. 2013).

[7]Id., Indiana Law Blog, at p. 3.