VEGETATION GROOMING: Law fails
to ease beach battle
Red tape prevents use of new freedoms
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
TRAVERSE CITY - Like the hardiest of weeds, the debate
over aquatic vegetation along Great Lakes shorelines just
keeps coming back.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation in early June
making it easier for waterfront property owners to spruce
up bottomlands that were submerged until lake levels began
dropping in the late 1990s.
The bill was a response to complaints that ugly weeds
were springing up as the waters receded - not to mention
the rocks, fish carcasses and other debris littering the
newly exposed grounds.
Environmentalists said plant growth was part of a natural
cycle in which waters recede every few decades, allowing
replenishment of fish and wildlife habitat while preventing
erosion and pollution.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has established
procedures for people wishing to maintain - or "groom"
- bottomlands in accordance with the law.
But a group that lobbied for the legislation is not satisfied.
Red tape is preventing landowners from fully utilizing
their new freedoms, says Ernie Krygier of Bay City, president
of Save Our Shoreline.
"I don't think the DEQ had any intention of following
the law," Krygier said. "They're still stopping
property owners from cleaning and maintaining their beaches."
DEQ spokeswoman Patricia Spitzley says the agency is doing
its part but that some people don't understand what the
"It's unfair and untrue to characterize this as just
another layer of bureaucracy or one more way to stick
it to the shoreline residents," she said.
Under the law, property owners no longer need a DEQ permit
to mow bottomland vegetation to a height of not less than
two inches, but cannot disturb soil or plant roots. They
can completely remove small amounts of vegetation by hand
if the plants aren't threatened or endangered species.
Other permissible maintenance includes raking the top
four inches of bottomland soil to remove trash, shells,
dead fish and the like; leveling sand where there is no
vegetation; and building temporary pathways across bottomlands
to open water.
Additionally, people in two "pilot areas" -
Grand Traverse Bay and Saginaw Bay - can seek expedited
permission for more extensive vegetation removal using
machinery. If the DEQ approves, the applicant doesn't
have to apply for a permit, a sometimes lengthy and complex
Sounds simple enough. But the guidelines set numerous
conditions and exceptions.
For example, vegetation removal projects in the pilot
areas must target only nonnative or invasive plants or
be in areas with certain soil types. Six of 29 requests
to date have received DEQ approval in the pilot areas,
Michael MacColeman, a partner in Cherry Tree Inn On The
Beach in Traverse City and an SOS member, said he sent
the DEQ a letter asking to remove vegetation separating
his business from Grand Traverse Bay. The agency turned
thumbs down, saying his proposal didn't meet the criteria.
Other hotels and resorts along the bay have been rejected,
said MacColeman, lamenting that beach vegetation costs
him money as turned-off tourists go elsewhere.
"I think we're going to have to go back to the Legislature
and get (the law) changed, or we're going to have to ask
a judge to require the DEQ to do what they're required
to do under the law," he said.
Krygier said SOS wants looser restrictions for waterfront
businesses but hasn't pushed hard for such a bill, figuring
Granholm would veto it.
DEQ Director Steven Chester confirmed in a recent interview
that his agency would "adamantly oppose" a commercial
State Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City, a sponsor of the bill
that was approved, said he had no plans to offer another
but was monitoring the situation. He said he has gotten
fewer complaints from constituents since the law took
"It's been a bit quieter," he said. "People
realize we're trying to work through this."
Another sore point for property owners: Even after securing
DEQ permission, they must get a separate permit from the
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for most grooming activity
because Great Lakes coastlines are protected under federal
"It's like a shell game," Krygier said.
Responding to complaints about delays, the Corps in May
streamlined the permitting process for minor residential
grooming, sand leveling and path construction, said Wally
Gauthier, chief of permit evaluation with the Detroit
office. The revised application consists of one page.
Since then, the Corps has approved 171 of 214 permit requests
and is taking just over two weeks to rule on the typical
application, Gauthier said.
That's progress - but not enough, said U.S. Rep. Bart
Stupak, D-Menominee. He is sponsoring a bill to make federal
regulations conform with the Michigan law. No committee
hearing is likely until next year.
"Enough of this business where you call the DEQ and
they say 'you can do this' and you call the Army Corps
and they say 'no you can't,' " Stupak said. "Their
laws are in conflict and how they enforce them is entirely
It's ironic that Stupak is offering the bill when the
Michigan congressional delegation is pushing for a major
federal initiative to improve the Great Lakes environment,
said Wil Cwikiel of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council
"We can't say it's OK for landowners to degrade the
Great Lakes shoreline and then ask the American taxpayer
for billions of dollars to restore it," Cwikiel said.
Lost amid the din of complaints and confusion, he said,
is that relatively few people are seeking permission for
extensive vegetation removal.
Critics say that is because they don't want to butt heads
with the government. But Cwikiel contends most shoreline
property owners - himself included - understand the importance
of letting nature take its course.
"They are the real Great Lakes heroes," he said.
"They know the water and their beach will come back
in time, but right now is a period for vegetation that
is very important to the health of the lakes."
On the Net:
-DEQ grooming guidelines available at http://www.michigan.gov/deq
-Save our Shoreline: http://www.saveourshoreline.org
-Army Corps of Engineers Detroit office: http://www.lre.usace.army.mil/index.cfm?chn-id=1081