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Great Lakes Article:

Wanted: Lake view with room to breathe
Chad Selweski
Macomb Daily

Officials want Lake St. Clair shoreline to become a place for all to enjoy, but overdevelopment may be plan's biggest hurdle.

Two decades ago, it was called the "Gold Coast," an untapped resource that could provide a glimmering focal point for Macomb County. But the opportunity to develop the Lake St. Clair shoreline into the jewel of the county may have passed.

When county officials meet Tuesday they're expected to launch a Coastal Zone Management Program to inventory all land uses within 1,000 feet of the shoreline - homes, condominiums, marinas, boat launch sites, parks, wetlands. That will serve as a database to guide future development and redevelopment.

The next step may be a county master plan that seeks to unite the waterfront communities for a collaborative effort to plot the future of the lakeshore. But some officials believe the opportunity to create a more attractive waterfront has faded.

"The lakefront should have been laid out with more public land, so that no individual owns the waterfront," said Chesterfield Township Supervisor Jim Ellis, who lives on the lake. "But it will not happen now. It's too late to even dream of."

Private homes and marinas dominate the shoreline, causing some residents to wonder why so much of the county's waterfront falls under residents-only or members-only restrictions.

Steve Cassin, county director of Planning and Economic Development, holds an optimistic view that the shoreline can become home to more parks, launch sites and a bike/hike trail. Proper long-term planning can make a difference, he said.

"It's never too late. There's always the opportunity for redevelopment," Cassin said.

But nearly all of the waterfront is fully developed - Ellis counts only 10 vacant lots over a long stretch of Chesterfield shoreline - and creating more public access would mean government buying property as it becomes available.

Cost is a major barrier. Vacant residential lots typically carry a $300,000 price tag. The land is in such high demand that donations to local communities are unlikely.

That means that the existing parks and boat access sites may be all that's offered for decades to come.

Jack Brandenburg, a member of the Huron-Clinton Metropolitan Authority board that oversees Metro Beach, said waterfront residents are paying the price for a lack of foresight by generations of officials.

"In Harrison Township, I don't think there's ever been any long-term planning," said Brandenburg, a 22-year resident of Harrison's waterfront. "We have so little green space left. Out where I live, it's become so congested. I think the development is hurting what we have."

Brandenburg and others complain that the trend is for developers to buy and demolish old, cottage-style homes on the lake and "squeeze in" condominiums or large homes of 3,000 square feet or more.

The result is that something as simple as a view of the lake is becoming hard to come by.

In recent years, U.S. Rep. David Bonior has pursued a federally funded plan to extend a hike/bike path from Metro Beach north to the Port Huron area. So far, that plan has produced few results.

The Chesterfield Township board last week voted to pursue funding for the path, with the township paying 20 percent of the costs. But at this point the proposal only calls for a 1-mile stretch south of New Baltimore along Jefferson Avenue, several hundred feet from the shoreline.

Extending the path farther south, over the Salt River, is unrealistic due to the costs of a pedestrian bridge, Ellis said.

One of the few efforts to study shoreline development was launched in the 1980s by the Central Macomb Chamber of Commerce. But the project soon became bogged down in controversy over the future of Selfridge Air National Guard Base, by far the largest lakefront piece of property.

No recommendations were forthcoming.

Some officials say the shoreline shortcomings are a symptom of the Detroit area waterfront, including the Detroit and St. Clair rivers. Private homes and industrial properties dominate. Comparisons are made to the Chicago lakefront where massive parks, beaches and public facilities such as museums, an aquarium and Navy Pier are the envy of Detroit-area officials.

Ellis said his community and others would have been wise decades ago to set aside a 100- or 200-foot wide swath of land for public recreation along the Lake St. Clair shore. But hindsight only blurs the limits of what is possible now.

Grace Shore, director of the Central Macomb Chamber of Commerce, said current trends are alarming. Overdevelopment of the waterfront will backfire, hurting property values and future economic development, she said.

Ideally, Shore said, a balance should be struck between public land and high-priced homes and condominiums. But that balance assumes that affordable land is available for public acquisition.

"It's a great idea but it probably should have been done 40 years ago," Shore said. "For the most part, the waterfront is gone."

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