The Public Trust Doctrine and the Great Lakes Shores
Cleveland State Law Review, Vol. 58, No. 1, 2010
59 Pages Posted: 11 May 2010 Last revised: 3 Feb 2012
Date Written: February 2, 2012
The shores of the Great Lakes are a battleground, and their future use is shrouded in uncertainty and controversy. Lakefront owners, armed with their deeds, assert an exclusive right to use their properties at least down to the water's edge. Members of the public, brandishing the venerable but amorphous public trust doctrine, claim a right to walk on even privately owned shores up to the high water mark. Courts to date have diverged widely, in approach and result, when deciding whether, and to what extent, the public has a right to use the Great Lakes shores.
This article proposes a uniform framework, grounded in the core principles of the public trust doctrine, for use in each Great Lakes state to ascertain the public's right to use the Great Lakes shores. This framework offers much-needed predictability, yet is flexible enough to allow each state to strike its own balance between public and private interests. The framework employs a principled, two-prong approach. First, it determines the geographic scope of the public trust doctrine applicable to the Great Lakes shores. Reconciling Supreme Court precedents, the framework provides that the geographic scope of the public trust in each state begins at a common starting point informed by the equal footing doctrine, and a state's ability to alter the scope is circumscribed. Second, the framework determines what public uses of the Great Lakes shores are protected by the public trust doctrine. Important, non-traditional public uses that do not unreasonably interfere with the rights of lakefront owners can be protected as well as the traditional uses of navigation, fishing, and commerce. Using as a focal point the controversy regarding the public's right to walk the Great Lakes shores, this article shows how the proposed framework is consistent with existing law in each of the Great Lakes states.
Keywords: public trust, Great Lakes, equal footing
JEL Classification: K32, K11
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation