TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – When Great Lakes water levels dropped suddenly and steeply in the late 1990s, aquatic plants sprang up along stretches of newly exposed shoreline. Property owners, environmentalists and government officials have argued ever since about how to deal with the vegetation, which some consider important to the ecosystem and others an ugly mess.
Now, the Michigan Senate is preparing to vote on whether to abolish a state program that regulates what landowners can do with the vegetation. For the past five years, they’ve been required to obtain a permit that sets conditions for activities such as uprooting or mowing plants, cutting paths and smoothing sand with hand tools or machines.
The state program largely overlaps with another administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. So even if the bill is enacted and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality loses authority to control beach maintenance, landowners still will have to obtain a permit from the corps and meet federal standards.
But supporters of the measure consider it a step toward freeing people to make their waterfronts more enjoyable, while opponents fear it could lead to loss of important fish spawning habitat and revive a debate over people’s right to stroll along Great Lakes beaches, which the state Supreme Court affirmed in 2005.
“We know that shoreline management activities can have a significant effect on coastal wetlands, fish and invertebrates, and the overall health of the lakes,” Jennifer McKay, a policy specialist with the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, an advocacy group based in Petoskey. “Individuals shouldn’t be allowed to maintain that land with no oversight from the DEQ.”
Ernie Krygier, longtime president of a property owners’ group called Save Our Shoreline that is pushing the legislation, said it isn’t intended to allow destruction of marshes, swamps or other established coastal wetlands. The idea is simply to let people with lakefront property clear away plants and debris such as mussel shells, and to move sand as needed so the beach will be smoother, he said.
“What we’re talking about is basic maintenance,” he said. “I don’t feel that we need two regulatory bodies overseeing what we do on beaches.”
Krygier is a member of the board of commissioners in Bay County, where large swaths of shoreline along Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay are overrun by thick stands of invasive phragmites. He and others have obtained permits to yank out the 15-foot-high reeds at the Bay City State Recreation Area. Private landowners should be able to do likewise, Krygier said.
“The aesthetics, safety and health of these shorelines are very important for the Michigan economy,” he said. “We’re all about beaches. If they’ve got vegetation and standing water, people won’t let their kids run there. They’ll go somewhere else.”
Defenders of the state regulatory program say it’s worked well. Since a new permitting system took effect in 2007, the DEQ has approved about 500 beach maintenance applications and rejected only four – hardly a sign of government heavy-handedness, McKay said.
The DEQ and the Army corps have a joint two-page application to make the process easier, although their policies differ somewhat.
“We try and make it as painless as possible,” said Wally Gauthier, a permit evaluation chief with the Army corps’ Detroit district office. The corps also has issued hundreds of permits and turned down relatively few requests, he said.
State Sen. Tom Casperson, an Escanaba Republican sponsoring the bill, said the system is widely unpopular even with property owners who get permits. Krygier said many people are quietly grooming their beaches without applying, hoping they won’t get caught.
The DEQ is willing to surrender control over beach maintenance if it retains authority to protect lake bottomlands, coastal wetlands and the public’s right to walk along the shoreline, said Maggie Cox, the department’s legislative liaison. The department and opposition groups contend the original bill, which cleared a Senate committee this month, would weaken those powers.
It would remove a reference to the ordinary high water mark – a crucial spot that helps define a public access zone on private property. It also has vague definitions that might lead some landowners to believe they could put up fences or other structures within the public trust area, McKay said.
“Anything that starts to erode the state’s ability to regulate in that zone is a step in the wrong direction,” said James Clift, policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council. “Especially since some proponents of this legislation are the personal property rights crowd who say they should have exclusive rights all the way to the water’s edge.”
Cox and Casperson told The Associated Press on Friday they had reached a tentative compromise that would guarantee continued beach walking access and clarify that the measure would deal only with beach maintenance. The DEQ would retain authority over activities such as dock construction.
While protecting mucky shoreline areas, the bill could lead to vegetation removal in sandy places that DEQ experts consider valuable wetlands, Cox acknowledged. But the Army corps would retain jurisdiction there.
Casperson said if the deal holds up, he might seek a Senate floor vote this week.
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