- Beachfront property
owners fight for right to keep property groomed, erase
By LORI HALL STEELE
Special to the Record-Eagle
TRAVERSE CITY - Waterfront property
owners are mowing beaches, the neighbor kids have swimmer's
itch and vacationers expecting pristine swims up north are
grumbling about increasingly swampy shores.
Sugar-sand beaches are transforming
into grassy wetlands as lake bottoms remain exposed for
the third consecutive year of the state's lowest water levels
since the 1960s.
Those boggy shores are beginning to
pit beach owners against the agencies enforcing state and
federal environmental laws that protect wetlands, shorelines
and lake bottoms.
It's sugar sand vs. wetland, recreation
vs. the environment, and property owners against the government,
according to some.
"The water is like a foot deep, stagnant
and yucky, and you can't go down and use the beach at night
because of all the mosquitoes," said David Almeter, owner
of Cherry Cove Beach Resort, an eight-cabin mom-and-pop
getaway south of Suttons Bay.
Almeter wanted to construct a 6-foot-wide
sand and pebble pathway to open water 50 feet away, but
his permit request was delayed, then placed in line for
evaluation, until it was too late for consideration this
"I get people from downstate and Ohio
here, and they just shake their heads. They don't understand,"
he said. "Everybody's getting complaints, and sooner or
later, people will take their business elsewhere."
Plant life is emerging all along Michigan's
some-3,000-mile Great Lakes shoreline, but shallow areas
- some areas of Grand Traverse Bay and Saginaw Bay, particularly
- are changing most rapidly. Shoreline business and home
owners accustomed to mechanically grooming sand are being
cited for upsetting new wetlands. A handful have been sued.
The state Department of Environmental
Quality this year sent 55 violation notices to Saginaw Bay-area
beach owners who attempted to fill or mechanically groom
beaches - which is considered a form of dredging - compared
to six notices per year in 2000 and 2001.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, meanwhile,
has sent cease-and-desist orders or advisories to more than
300 Saginaw Bay beachowners in the past three years. Figures
were not available for the Grand Traverse Bay area.
In response, beach owners are uniting
to protest what they consider unfair restrictions on mechanical
grooming and too-lengthy and inconsistent permit processing
for grooming or building raised pathways to open water.
Save Our Shorelines, a 1,300-member
organization formed in 2001 and based in Bay City, is meeting
at 1 p.m. today at the Grand Traverse Resort in Acme. The
group invited some 3,100 Leelanau and Grand Traverse county
beachowners to attend. SOS members have raised $220,000
to lobby lawmakers and start legal action to allow mechanical
beach grooming and reduce paperwork for other permits.
"The government is taking private and
public beaches and allowing them to turn into wetlands,"
SOS president Ernie Krygier said. "Our mission is to keep
beaches as beaches. People have vegetation over their heads
and they're walking through muck."
Officials, however, say Mother Nature
- not the government - is turning beaches into wetlands.
Several state and federal environmental protection laws,
including the U.S. Clean Water Act, protect wetlands and
Great Lakes bottomlands, requiring permits for dredging,
filling and construction projects.
There's a simple reason, officials
say, for the government regulations: They protect the environment.
"The coastal wetlands that have emerged
as the water levels have dropped are among the most biologically
important, biologically active habitats in North America,"
said Bill Leiteritz, physical scientist with the Army Corps
of Engineers in Essexville. "Those coastal wetlands are
important not only locally but globally.
"If people want clean air to breathe
and clean water to drink, those wetlands provide it," he
said. "That's the message I've been trying to get out for
Nonetheless, under federal law, beach
owners can legally mow or hand-pick beach plants.
"People can go out with lawn mowers
and weed whackers and they can cut the vegetation to the
height they want," Leiteritz said. "You can go out and pull
all the vegetation you want by hand. You can go out and
clean up the stuff that floats in by hand. But you can't
disk the bottom, plow the bottom, use a bulldozer blade."
This year, lakes Huron and Michigan
are 10 inches below the long-term average of 579.5 feet
above sea level. Last year, they were a foot below average.
In some places, such a drop exposes hundreds of feet of
lake bottom. The shoreline in some low-lying areas is now
500 feet farther away than it was three years ago. In some
exposed areas, shallow waters pool, dormant seeds sprout,
and voila!: A wetland.
Wetlands and areas beneath the high-water
mark also are protected by state law and, as with federal
law, permits are required to dredge and fill.
"We're not talking about someone who
picks up a stone and we say, 'Hey, you dredged the bottomland,'¡"
said Martin Jannereth, chief of DEQ's Great Lakes Shorelands
Section. "I don't think a hand rake is what we're talking
about. What we're talking about is mechanical equipment
- tractors, bulldozers."
Higher water levels that persisted
for nearly 30 years kept beach conditions stable on most
Great Lakes shorelines, so heavy grooming wasn't necessarily
required. Newly grown wetlands and Great Lakes bottomlands
- areas below the high-water mark - weren't involved. But
the water-level decline three years ago dramatically changed
things on some beaches.
"The property owners weren't happy
with this change in conditions," Jannereth said.
The DEQ, unlike the Army Corps of Engineers,
has taken discretionary action to "strike a balance" between
environmental protection and recreational access to the
Water Wonderland's waters, which property owners, the public
and tourists enjoy, Jannereth said.
"The director of the department has
indicated there are certain activities we aren't going to
be concerned with: mowing, some grooming and filling in
to get pathways out to the water, within certain parameters,"
he said. "We concluded differently than the Corps of Engineers
that the impacts, given the parameters, wouldn't have any
lasting, long-term impact to natural resources."
At the same time, officials want the
public to understand that emerging wetlands do serve an
important environmental function. Often, during low-water
periods, upland wetlands dry up, and new foliage growing
along shoreline becomes an alternate habitat for birds and
Property owners, meanwhile, say rules
for permits are not streamlined, that lake levels will rise
again and those who pay higher beachfront tax rates should
be able to groom their shores.
The increasingly mucky waters, particularly
in East Grand Traverse Bay's shallow shoreline area, have
prompted constant complaints at some hotels, where guests
expect the "clear pristine waters" this region is known
for, said Michael MacColeman, general manager of the Cherry
Tree Inn on the Beach, a 64-room hotel that opened in 1999.
"This is a temporary situation, and
it should be treated with leniency," he said.
The hotel received a cease-and-desist
order because it was using a small lawn tractor with a fence
behind it to drag the beach. Permission later was granted
to groom 100 feet of the 400-foot shoreline.
"It's going to have a long-term effect
on Traverse City," MacColeman said. "If indeed the DEQ and
Army Corps of Engineers are successful and the whole waterfront
becomes weedy except for 100-foot swaths, no one's going
to be able enjoy the beaches.
"One of the reasons Traverse City is
so popular is because of our beaches, and if they're not
nice, people won't come."
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