The bluffs that stand between The Bluffs of Frankfort condominiums and Lake Michigan in Frankfort.

FRANKFORT — After a public outcry a Frankfort condominium association withdrew a request for an easement to build a stone revetment seawall on a city-owned beach.

Now some residents want to make sure the shoreline, which they say is Frankfort's most beautiful natural resource, is not destroyed.  

"It would be great if they (city council members) decided that this was not the kind of development Frankfort needs or wants," said Brad Rollings, who lives part-time in a cabin about a half-mile north of the Bluffs of Frankfort condominiums. 

"I'm hopeful that this is going to stop and we can get back to normal."

If the Bluffs Association had been given the easement, other nearby associations may have seen that as a green light to do the same, Rollings said. 

Urgent construction of the stone revetment — a sloped wall designed to absorb wave energy — was recommended to stabilize the bluff, according to a study done by Baird, an engineering firm hired by the association.  

The association is now looking at other options such as moving the condos back, said Bob Tarkington, president. Tarkington spends about half the year in Frankfort, and said about half of the Bluffs' residents are year-round. 

The condo development is comprised of four buildings with five units each. Moving them back would require new foundations and lower level construction, roads, utilities and more, according to information from Tarkington.

Costs had been estimated at about $3 million, but are likely going to be much higher than that, Tarkington said.

Seawalls and other shoreline hardening measures allow for scouring of sand from neighboring beaches and even under the armoring structures, sometimes leaving no beach. 

A less invasive measure such as beach nourishment, which replaces sand lost through erosion, is another option the association is looking at, Tarkington said. The process offers a buffer against erosion, but is a short-term solution, with the deposited sand eventually eroding away. 

"That's a difficult process, of course," Tarkington said. "That's certainly something that could provide protection during high water. We're looking at a variety of ways to manage this. It's a challenge."

Julie Owens, who lives three doors to the north from the condos, said several people came out against the revetment. She lives in a home built by her grandparents in the 1930s that has been moved back twice — in 1977 and 1986. She estimates that the bluff has lost at least 70 feet since it was built.

"That is what I believe in," Owens said. "You preserve the beach, its natural beauty."

When the cottage was being moved back for the second time, Owens asked her father why they didn't just put riprap on the beach.

"He said, 'That just moves the erosion to the neighbors,'" Owens said. "And that's my view."

The condos are perched on a stretch of bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. The land between the crest of the bluff and the lake's ordinary high water water mark is owned by the city. 

That beach and bluff has eroded to its limit of acceptability and failure to act will dramatically impact the value of the homes, according to information from Tarkington.    

The easement, if granted by the Frankfort City Council, would have allowed the association to construct the revetment. The association would have owned the structure and would be responsible for its construction costs; permitting from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; maintenance and insurance.  

Baird representatives gave presentations on their study that included a conceptual design of the rock revetment to Frankfort Supervisor Joshua Mills, and the Frankfort Planning Commission and City Council. 

The request for an easement was tabled by the council at a previous meeting and then withdrawn by the Bluffs Association earlier this month, Mills said.

The council talked about having a public forum on the issue of shoreline stabilization, though no date has been set, Mills said.

"The city would like to have a community discussion on shoreline preservation, to have a discussion on what the long-term solution would be," Mills said. "I don't think anybody wants a rock wall."

Rollings said Tarkington should have come to his neighbors first, before going to the council.

"I don't think he realized there was going to be this much opposition, not just from his neighbors, but from the community," Rollings said. 

In June another group of 25 cottage owners in the Wildewood Association about 2 miles north of the Bluffs Association installed a seawall along the toe — or measuring point at the bottom of a bluff — of their privately-owned beach to save 11 cottages in danger of being lost to the lake. Fifteen-foot-tall steel sheets were buried into the sand, with about 5 feet left visible. 

Jerrod Sanders, assistant director of the EGLE Water Resources Division, said the percentage of the Great Lakes shoreline that has been hardened is not known, but this fiscal year that ends Sept. 30 about 2,500 permits have been issued, mostly for shoreline armoring projects such as riprap and stone revetments. Most are on privately-owned beaches, he said. 

To compare, 730 permits were issued in 2019, 636 in 2018 and 264 in 2014, according to EGLE data. 

"It underscores the efforts that many homeowners up and down the coast are taking to try to protect their property," Tarkington said. 

Lakes Michigan and Huron are now on a seasonal decline and have fallen about 1 or 2 inches since their midsummer peak, Sanders said. That trend is expected to continue into spring, according to the Army Corps. The long-term trend is not known as only six-month projections are given because they are highly dependent on weather, Sanders said. 

Mills says he has long been a proponent of beach nourishment. 

"It allows us to not impact negatively our shoreline," Mills said. "It could be enough to where we get through the high water cycle ... which in turn would buy us some time."

But there are several unknown factors, as the normal highs and lows of the Great Lakes water cycle are now being impacted by climate change, he said. 

According to the Baird study the bluff has receded an average of 0.5 to 0.7 feet per year since 1954. 

The crest has been stable for about six years, but the toe has lost 20 feet since 2015, which has made the slope steeper and will lead to erosion at the top over time, according to the study.

Several solutions were looked at, including cobbling the beach, adding an offshore submerged stone reef and reducing groundwater flow. The stone revetment was recommended by the study as the best option as it would have minimized further erosion along the bluff's toe.

Owens said people should not be interfering with the natural water cycle by putting up stone walls.

"You can't stop erosion," she said. "You just can't stop it."

Editor's Note: This story was updated to add information about the costs of moving the condos and that the value of the condos could be impacted if no action is taken. 

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