Thursday, October 9, 2003

Lakefront owners, Ohio grapple over land rights

By Kristen Gelineau
The Associated Press

CLEVELAND - According to her deed, Sandra Wade owns five acres of lakefront property in Port Clinton.

According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, she owns none of it.

Wade, who says she pays taxes on it, is afraid the state could someday take her property away.

A bill being considered by Ohio lawmakers would keep that from happening.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tim Grendell, R-Chesterland, would limit the state's control of shoreline properties and legally give lakefront property owners the land granted to them in their deeds. The bill also would essentially eliminate fees many lakeshore landowners have to pay for such structures as docks and jetties, which they must rent from the state under the current regulations.

The debate largely pits property owners - who say they're fearful of losing what's rightfully theirs - against the Ohio Department of Natural Resources - which says it's fearful the public will lose its already limited access to the shoreline. "I've never seen anything to get the bird lovers and the duck hunters together faster than this bill," said Jack Shaner, public affairs coordinator for the nonprofit Ohio Environmental Council, a coalition of 100 conservation and environmental groups.

His group is opposed to the legislation he calls unfair and unconstitutional because backers "would like to move the public shorelines way out off the coast of Lake Erie."

Wade's property lies below what's known as the "ordinary high water mark." The natural resources department says anything below this mark belongs to the public, even though deeds of most property owners state they own property up to the "Ohio low water mark."

Grendell's bill would require the state use the low water mark when determining ownership.

"The Department of Natural Resources has no interest in taking people's private property, and we have no intentions of taking people's homes away from them," said Dave Mackey, chief of the Office of Coastal Management of the natural resources department, which opposes the legislation.

The bill proposes essentially eliminating the state from managing the Lake Erie coast, said Jim Lynch, the natural resources department spokesman.

If the bill passes, the coastal management program could lose its federal approval and thus its certification, Mackey said. That would translate to a loss of $2.3 million a year in funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for coastal projects, and could place in jeopardy several other one-time grants.

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