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Great Lakes Article:

VEGETATION GROOMING: Law fails to ease beach battle
Red tape prevents use of new freedoms
By John Flesher
The Associated Press
10/27/03

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 law allows.
"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 process.

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, she said.

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 exemption.

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 effect.

"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 law.

"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 different."

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 in Petoskey.

"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."
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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

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