Few people are on the fence when it comes to the public-private beach debate ... and in Leland, there’s the matter of the fence itself.
The split-rail fence split public opinion as easily as the land it divided, as it followed both sides of a sandy path to the edge of Lake Michigan at Reynolds Street.
The 60-foot wide access had been in the crosshairs before; the road end has long been used as a public beach known to locals as South Beach, with the township placing signs that listed “park rules,” trash cans and water rings. Same scenario at another road end access at North Street.
But complaints — horror stories of vandalism, trespassing and litter — galvanized legal action and the formation of the Save Our Shoreline group of 54 beachfront property owners populating two miles of Leland coast.
The result was the township finding that they have no jurisdiction over road ends — that it’s under the Leelanau County Road Commission; they removed the signs and wastebins; and emphasized the use of the access point for ingress and egress only.
Then the Memorial Day fence appeared, inflaming more tempers than a bonfire — which, to many, suggested a more useful destination for the fence.
Discussion flashpoints included emergency medical service access, beachgoer behavior and rights, rights, rights.
The fence went as it came, mysteriously, two days later.
But it’s nowhere near the end of the road for this dispute — and the general tension between beachgoers and property owners as the lake levels continue to rise, pushing the two groups closer together.
Michigan’s Great Lakes shoreline is legally walkable at the high water mark. Most people eyeball this as the line where sand/rocks meets vegetation. But water already laps this line in many places, adding new complications from dune erosion, falling trees — even potential medical rescue.
Rangers, scientists and volunteers report “thin to nonexistent beaches” along 35 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, said Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Scott Tucker.
“It’s the highest we’ve seen in many years,” said Tucker.
A cadre will educate people away from heading to the beach at places like the Pierce Stocking Trail No. 9 Lake Michigan Overlook. No beach means no land rescue — just by air and boat — and wind changes conditions quickly, Tucker said.
The lakeshore was a scene of another mysterious appearance earlier this spring at Good Harbor Beach — yards of broken glass, maliciously placed, according to park officials.
But passive-aggressive actions and outrage remind us that there’s a high road, if not a high water mark. The best way to protect public access is to respect private property rights — and for private property owners to respect public ability to access what belongs to them ... i.e. the lake.
Otherwise we end up walking on eggshells, broken glass or not walking at all.