Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Case Study #2 Natural Rivers Protect Public, Private Values

Case Study #2 Natural Rivers Protect Public, Private Values

December 1, 1999 | By Patty Cantrell
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Jerry Kleinhenn is no fan of zoning. The Benzie County contractor believes ordinances that try to control sprawl can unfairly limit use of private property. "Ten-acre [lot minimums] aren't going to be the answer," he says.

All the same, Mr. Kleinhenn is a long-time fan of the county's clear, forest-lined Betsie River, and he has grudgingly accepted state zoning restrictions on how far homes and businesses can encroach on the Betsie's sensitive riverside ecosystem. "I know you've got to have regulations sometimes to take care of what you've got," he said.

Mr. Kleinhenn's conclusion falls in the middle range of sentiments about the need for, and fairness of, the Michigan Natural River Act. This pioneering 1970 law establishes a set of minimum river zoning standards for local governments to use if they choose, or for the state to apply if they fail to adopt basic protections.

It's been 11 years, however, since the Department of Natural Resources staff, working with local residents, designated a new Natural River. Only 14 of 39 rivers on the original list are actually protected by the DNR- administered program. In the meantime, development pressure has grown exponentially across Michigan, and
many of the state's finest rivers remain defenseless.

Manistee Troubles

The biggest factor in the delay is the fear among private property owners that Natural River zoning will keep them from enjoying or profiting from their riverside land. That was the rallying cry nearly three years ago when property rights rhetoric raged across northwest lower Michigan in response to a citizen-backed proposal to designate the Manistee River and its tributaries.

Approximately 40 townships and five counties reacted by passing resolutions against the Natural River Act, and Sen. George McManus (R-Traverse City) followed up by introducing a bill that would gut the law. The bill failed after Natural River supporters rallied in return, but private rights opposition still could stymie designation of the Manistee when public hearings on the final proposal are held this spring.

Reasonable Rulings

One fear proclaimed by opponents is the idea that the Act so restricts home construction that lot owners cannot remodel cabins into retirement homes or see the river from their decks. However, an extensive review by the Institute of actual decisions by locally-based Natural River zoning review boards suggests otherwise.

Between 1993 and 1996, the local boards on the Betsie and Pere Marquette rivers denied just 7% of all requests for variances. The boards approved almost half as proposed, and about 30% with modifications.

As the numbers indicate, boards will often work with applicants to modify plans. They may suggest building onto the side or back of a house instead of the side facing the river, or directing runoff from gutters away from the river. "We attempt to work it so that we give people what they want and still abide by the law," says Bill Schwikert of the Pere Marquette River's locally-based review board.

Another fear is that Natural River property might lose value because of the Act's zoning standards. A study by Michigan State University, however, shows clearly that both property values and sales are stronger on designated Natural Rivers than on comparable rivers without state zoning protections.

That doesn't surprise Don Tanner, who makes a living as a fishing guide on the Betsie and other premium trout streams. "A good contrast is the Betsie and the [nearby] Platte River," he says. "The Platte is extremely built up, with decks and docks right on the water.... But when I float people down the Betsie, they feel honestly like they could be in the wilderness."


Dan Pearson, Natural River Program, Department of Natural Resources, Forest Management Division, P.O. Box 30452, Lansing, MI 48909, Tel. 517-335-3441, E-mail Pearsods@state.mi.us; Joe Kutkuhn, Manistee River Association, 476 Wesman, Grayling, MI 49738, Tel. 517-348-4075, E-mail kutkuhn@freeway.net; Patty Cantrell at the Institute, 616-882-4723 x18, E-mail patty@mlui.org.

Buffer Zone Basics

Natural River zoning is designed to maintain the health of "riparian areas," those riverside zones where aquatic and land ecosystems intertwine. Riparian areas are highly valuable because:

• The diversity of plants and root systems along rivers provides a buffer from everyday pollution, such as runoff from fertilized lawns, roadways, and eroding land.

• Wild animals, insects, fish, birds, and microbes all benefit from the shade, habitat, and food that the riverside zone of trees, underbrush and decaying logs provides.

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