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Shoreline erosion poses issues for coastline development

BY Sunday, November 24, 2019 06:29pm

As erosion along the Great Lakes coastline puts properties in jeopardy, the future of development along Michigan’s coasts remains uncertain.

Data from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers show Lake Michigan was nearly 3 feet above average this fall, and over the next five months is projected to equal or exceed its all-time record highs set in 1986 and 1987. With each of the five Great Lakes at well above average levels, storms and wave action have caused increased erosion and flooding along shorelines regionwide.

This comes at a cost for property owners along the coast, who have seen their properties erode more and more with every storm. 

“There’s an awful lot of uncertainty because people don’t know what their frontage is going to do,” said Mike Schaap, founder and president of Holland-based Mike Schaap Builders Inc. “Uncertainty brings a certain level of being more standoffish on wanting to build, just because of the unknown.” 

Schaap’s company builds high-end custom homes along the lakeshore. He now has daily conversations about how to protect existing houses or real estate along the coast, given that water levels are as high as he’s ever seen them.

With the recent storms and increased shoreline erosion, the state of Michigan has expedited measures that property owners can use to protect their properties. It remains to be seen how much the issues will affect people’s desire to build along the coastline in the future. 

Some West Michigan municipalities have faced new costs and infrastructure challenges associated with the high water. That includes Pentwater, which started a water taxi after high water levels closed a key bridge that connects the north and south sides of Pentwater Lake. In Ludington, the high water levels caused flooding on some streets because storm drains had difficulty emptying the water, as well as resulted in closures of the popular north breakwater during wavy conditions. 

Schaap said he has not seen a decrease in people wanting to live along the Lake Michigan coast, although they need to be willing to take measures in the planning process to protect their investments.

“I think right now the risk is certainly on the forefront of people’s minds,” Schaap said. “People are having to look at that much more carefully. They’re trying to be careful about what site they choose. It’s including steps to protect their investment.”

Protecting properties

In the last few years, the number of permits for shoreline protection issued by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has increased from 264 permits in 2014 to 730 permits in 2019. 

In October, EGLE announced it would expedite the permit process, which normally takes 60-90 days, to allow homeowners to obtain shoreline protection in a matter of days.

EGLE has diverted resources from other programs to assist property owners, local governments and technical professionals in processing permits and prioritizing activities based on the risks to public health and safety, as well as finding solutions that protect people and the environment. EGLE also created a website specifically for homeowners who have erosion issues.

This month EGLE announced it will make it easier for lakeshore property owners to get a permit for the temporary use of sandbags as stabilization measures to protect homes and infrastructure. Sandbags are not a permanent solution to erosion problems, and property owners need to work with contractors to design more permanent measures like boulders or riprap, or even move homes and infrastructure farther inland in some extreme cases.

Michigan also is seeing more drastic weather events, which has been linked to climate change, said Luis Saldivia, field operations manager with EGLE. In recent years, the significant rainfall and snowpack in the Lake Michigan basin has contributed to the rising water levels, Saldivia said.

It’s tough to predict how this will shake out in the future. In its forecast released this month, the Army Corps of Engineers estimates Lake Michigan water levels next month will be more than a foot higher than they were in December 2018, with estimated levels in early 2020 also exceeding levels this year.

“To some folks that would be a significant number to be concerned with, because we’re reaching record highs right now, and if the lake stays at the same level that we are today or higher, more properties will be impacted by the high water,” Saldivia said. 

The future of development 

People will have to continue to think through the high levels of risk associated with developing along the coast of Lake Michigan. But this has always been the case with that type of development, Schaap said. 

“I think people enjoy the beautiful sunsets, but right now they’re seeing the other side of being on the lake that’s part of the experience of living on the lake,” he said. “Until we see the waters receding a bit, there’s going to be that level of risk people have to think through.”

The issues have not yet affected Schaap’s business. He is currently in the middle of a handful of builds and renovations along the lakeshore. The change he has seen is people taking “smarter” approaches to development.

EGLE does a lot of consultations for people considering a project on one of the Great Lakes. Saldivia will go through the potential risks of the site, the challenges it poses to development and the setbacks that are needed given that the shoreline has eroded every year since the Ice Age.

Erosion issues are part of the planning process, Schaap said, including setbacks, soil types, the height of bluffs, and whether there is a breakwall nearby. 

“We’ve been doing this since 1986. In these almost 34 years now, you’ve watched cycles come and go, so you just approach it smarter,” Schaap said. 

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