EMPIRE — A culvert that drains South Bar Lake into Lake Michigan is failing, with high water, winds and waves clogging it with sand about once a week.

The cost of all that unclogging is falling on Empire Village, as well as keeping its two-man public works department very busy, said Wayne Aylsworth, village president.

“It’s taken a vast amount of the DPW’s time to unclog it,” Aylsworth said.

The problem has been ongoing for years, Aylsworth said, though an increase in rain and stormwater runoff has exacerbated the problem, causing the water levels in South Bar to rise.

Some homeowners are seeing soggy yards, damp garages and wet basements.

The Empire Village Council recently petitioned the Leelanau County Drain Commission to create a Drainage District that would allow for assessments on properties in the district to pay for a South Bar Lake Drain to take care of the issue.

“We’ve been talking about this for multiple years,” Aylsworth said. “It was just time to vote on it.”

The cost of the project is not yet known.

“The last thing I want to do is incur another cost on the residents,” Aylsworth said. “But it’s a major issue. It has to be fixed.”

The culvert runs under a private drive at the south end of South Bar Lake. The culvert needs repaired or replaced and wood supports around the culvert are bowing out, Aylsworth said. Sheet pilings were recently added to hold the supports for the time being, he said.

The next step in the process is to declare the size of the district and the number of properties within it. Because the district was requested by the village, it does not need approval of the individual property owners, said Steve Christensen, drain commissioner.

He estimates there are more than 100 properties in the district.

The cost is not assessed until the project is done, Christensen said, and could be stretched out over several years.

There are also four at-large entities, including the village and Empire Township, that will pick up 20 to 30 percent of the cost of the project. There are also the Leelanau County Road Commission and the Michigan Department of Transportation, who are considered at-large because a state highway and a county road are located within the district.

The next step in the process is to schedule a Board of Determination hearing in which a three-member panel chosen by Christensen will decide if the drain is needed. Those on the panel must live in Leelanau County, but not in Empire Village, Empire Township or the proposed district, or have any interests in the district.

Once the panel determines the drain is needed, the process of garnering easements can begin, Christensen said.

“Easements can take quite a long time to garner,” he said, calling them a “major wild card.”

Christensen has been working for several years to get easements on other county drain projects, including one at Schomberg Road.

Establishing drainage districts can sometimes be tricky because there are always people who live at the top of a hill, Christensen said.

“People at the top of the watershed really don’t have any problems,” he said. “It’s the people at the bottom who do.”

Drainage districts are established under the Michigan Drain Code of 1956, which was written so those at the bottom can get relief from flooding situations, he said. They do not require public hearings.

The last steps are to finalize the design, go out for bids and hire a contractor.

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