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Great Lakes Article:

Army Corps proposes compromise in dispute over beach clearing
By John Flesher
Associated Press

TRAVERSE CITY -- A proposed federal rule would give owners of hotels along Michigan’s Great Lakes shorelines greater freedom to remove beach vegetation exposed by low water.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers district office in Detroit released the tentative plan Friday, opening a 30-day period for public comment. Afterward, the agency will decide whether to implement the regulation without changes, modify it or scrap it.

The rule pertains to commercial establishments -- motels, resorts, condominium complexes -- with at least 100 feet of shoreline frontage.

They could remove wetland vegetation from up to 25 percent of their property, not to exceed an area 100 feet wide.

For example, a motel with 200 feet of frontage could clear vegetation from a 50-foot-wide swath. A resort with 400 feet of frontage could clear 100 feet. But if the resort owned more than 400 feet, it still could not clear more than 100.

The rule also would streamline the application process by establishing a regional permit instead of requiring property owners to seek individual permits. Army Corps approval still would be needed for vegetation removal, but the agency would not solicit public comments for each project.

Lt. Col. Thomas Magness, Detroit district commander, described the proposed rule as a compromise in the dispute over wetland plants along Great Lakes shorelines. The greenery has surfaced as water levels have receded since the late 1990s.

Many shoreline property owners have clamored for authority to dig up the plants, calling them unsightly, foul-smelling and a breeding ground for mosquitoes. Environmentalists, however, say they are an important part of the ecosystem, preventing erosion and providing habitat for aquatic wildlife.

"We’re trying to find an appropriate balance that reflects the different needs," Magness said.

But both sides in the debate voiced disappointment with the Army Corps proposal.

"It could have been worse," said Wil Cwikiel, program director with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council in Petoskey. "But it still would allow further degradation of a critical resource. It goes in the absolutely wrong direction in terms of how to manage these systems."

David Powers, vice president of a property owners group called Save our Shoreline, said the plan "doesn’t go far enough to protect shoreline properties and our tourist economy. ... It’s a political move by the Corps so they can say they’ve done something."

A state law enacted last year lets property owners perform some types of shoreline maintenance, such as mowing and raking, without a permit.

It also establishes two "pilot areas" -- Grand Traverse Bay on Lake Michigan and Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron -- where owners can seek expedited approval from the Department of Environmental Quality to remove vegetation on up to 50 percent of the width of their property or 100 feet, whichever is greater.

But most shoreline grooming also requires an Army Corps permit because Great Lakes coastal wetlands are protected under federal law.

U.S. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Menominee, is sponsoring a bill that would require the Army Corps to conform its policies to the Michigan law. His measure has yet to get a committee hearing.

Stupak’s office had no immediate comment on the Army Corps proposal, but SOS members said it didn’t meet the Michigan standards.

"It’s a farce," complained Michael MacColeman, a partner in Cherry Tree Inn On The Beach in Traverse City. It won’t satisfy tourists who are avoiding beaches in his area because of the vegetation, he said.

Magness said the new policy would make things much easier for commercial owners, just as the agency did last year by revising the application process for residential property owners.

Those changes shortened the average application processing period from several months to about two weeks, he said.

On the Net:

-- Text of Army Corps proposed rule:

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