Beach Levels

Record-Eagle/Tessa Lighty

Houses along Good Harbor Bay are being threatened by rising water levels.

SUTTONS BAY — Increased storminess and fluctuations in lake water levels are the two main stresses to the Great Lakes system.

So says Richard K. Norton from the Urban and Regional Planning Program at the University of Michigan. The group works with communities to develop sensible coastal management programs that focus on hazards such as flooding and damage from wave action.

Norton spoke to about 50 people Tuesday at the Leelanau County Government Center in Suttons Bay.

Coastal communities need to adopt policies that include things like required beach setbacks and buffer zones that stop homes and other structures from being built too close to the water's edge, he said.

Many homes are built when the levels are low and when water rises and erosion occurs, the homes are in trouble. Many homeowners then look to "armor" their shoreline to save the home, putting in seawalls or piles of riprap along the beach.

Some have gotten help from their local municipalities, using tax dollars to pay for those measures, Norton said. They make the argument that they pay large amounts of taxes.

Steve Martineau lives in Leland and said he learned a lot during the presentation.

"If I were on a township planning commission I would be very concerned about what's going on," Martineau said. "If the homeowner wants to build a home close to the water the community shouldn't have to provide that protection for them ... That's just common sense."

Norton says shoreline hardening is not a good solution, that the water will eventually scour away the beach in front of the seawall, creating a basin. The wave action will also erode beach belonging to neighbors on either side of the seawall.

"If you armor you will eventually lose the beach," Norton said, adding that the number of seawalls being put in on Great Lakes shorelines is alarming.

It's an issue that Leelanau Township recently faced, when erosion caused by high water levels threatened to destroy a public parking lot built on a bluff at Christmas Cove beach. Officials were planning to install 270 feet of 15-to 20-foot-tall sheet metal pilings — a seawall — to save the lot.

But 168 petition-signers put a stop to the plan. The lot is now succumbing to Mother Nature, as about 5 feet of asphalt have crumbled onto the beach, a guardrail has become useless and the lot is gated off, with concrete blocks set along its edge.

Leelanau Township Trustee Gary Fredrickson, who attended Tuesday's presentation, said he was and still is in favor of a seawall at Christmas Cove. The township is planning to hire an engineer to figure out how to save the lot, but should look at hiring Norton's group, he said.

"Nobody's looking outside the box," Fredrickson said.

Norton recently gave his presentation in Traverse City and in Northport, with Leland Township Supervisor Susan Och attending both sessions.

Och said she always thought about waterfront homes as the bread and butter of the township's tax base.

"But we probably should think about it as the icing on the cake," Och said. "The idea that it could be washed away in an instant is sobering."

Leland Township has recently faced issues of private versus public beach when a beachfront property owner complained that people using a nearby road-end beach trespassed on his family's property.

While the road ends have always been used as public beaches, the township recently opted to take down all signs regulating the spots after finding out the road ends are not township property, but are owned by and under the jurisdiction of the county. They are supposed to be used only to provide ingress and egress to and from the lake.

The clash between the public and beach front property owners is a result of higher water levels and the increased popularity of Leelanau as a vacation spot, Och has said.

Water levels on the Great Lakes fluctuate and while precipitation, evaporation and ice cover all play a role, that does not tell the entire story, said Norton, adding that the real cause is not entirely known. The levels are now getting close to their all-time high set in 1986.

"The question is, we don't know how long it will stay high," he said.

Storms are also getting more intense, causing more intensive erosion of shorelines. Periods of very dry weather are followed by deluges of rain, which comes down so hard and fast it doesn't have a chance to soak into the ground and runs off into the lakes, Norton said.

"Whatever is causing it, the climate is getting weird and if we don't deal with it we're in trouble," Norton said.

Norton also gave the crowd lessons on the Ordinary High Water Mark, defining the difference between the regulatory OHWM, a fixed number based on international Great Lake survey datum, and the natural OHWM, that refers to the point where "the presence and action of the water is so continuous as to leave a distinct mark ..." as determined by the Michigan Supreme Court in 2005.

Suttons Bay resident Lois Bahle was at Tuesday's event to pick up a few tips.

"I've served on planning commissions and have had to face people's questions about the high water mark and 'Why can't I build there?'" Bahle said. "You have to be sensible."

Editor's Note: This story was updated 12/06/2018 to clarify that road ends are supposed to be used only to provide ingress and egress to and from the lake. 

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