Michigan Land Use Institute

MLUI / Articles from 1995 to 2012 / Property Rights or Wetlands Wronged?

Property Rights or Wetlands Wronged?

Senate considers claim to “groom” beaches

May 18, 2003 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

MLUI Staff
  Historically low Great Lakes water levels have exposed coastal bottomlands, like these in Traverse City. Biologists say that the ponds and vegetation now dotting them offer crucial protection for shoreline creatures and control erosion. Property owners just see muck, grass, and unsightly inconvenience.

The state Senate committee that recently approved delaying the protection of Michigan’s groundwater for two years is now considering allowing property owners to rip up what one expert calls “some of the most impressive and valuable wetlands in the Great Lakes.” The bill that the Senate Natural Resources and Environmental Affairs Committee is studying, SB 244, is similar to one that the state House of Representatives passed last month. It gives Great Lakes waterfront  owners the authority to bulldoze the state-owned bottomland and vegetation that low lake levels have exposed.

Scientists, conservationists, hunters, and ecologists have denounced the legislation as a threat to Great Lakes water quality and ecology. Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm also opposes the measure. But the Republican-controlled House, which seems increasingly suspicious of any government role in managing the state’s natural resources, bowed to one assertion by property rights proponents that bottomlands are unsightly, and another claim -- that they breed disease-spreading mosquitoes -- that has no basis in scientific fact. On April 10, 58 Republicans and six Democrats supported HB 4257, the House version of the bill; 42 Democrats and 1 Republican opposed it.

The debate on the beach-grooming bill has attracted significant public attention for several reasons. First, it raises questions about the role of citizens and government in safeguarding shoreline areas owned by the public and vital to the Great Lakes’ health. Second, Republican lawmakers apparently are rallying around a much more aggressive interpretation of private property rights in order to energize their constituency and limit government’s authority to manage natural resources. And third, Republican state leaders are signaling conservatives that they are increasingly prepared to challenge Gov. Granholm, who campaigned and won on a promise to safeguard Michigan’s environment.

One House member who pushed the bill and owns Lake St. Clair beachfront property is Representative Jack Brandenburg, a Republican from Harrison Township. He sought to frame the debate as simple self-interest.

“It’s not pretty to look at,” he said of the vegetation. “It’s not healthy. There are algae levels that are almost astounding. A lot of people are being hurt by this because they want to look at water, and they’re looking at boulders and seaweed and dead animals and every other thing.”

A Contest Among Beauty, Legality, and Utility
Biologists say that while perhaps “not pretty, ” those areas are in fact coastal wetlands that are crucial to a lake’s health. Others warn that the legislation blurs the bottomlands’ ownership.

Rep. Brandenburg said the ownership issue is moot: Shoreline owners would do nothing unnatural to the land “because 12 months from now that could all be washed away.”

But Scott McEwen of the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, an Emmet County-based environmental organization that opposes the legislation, asserted that this is exactly why exposed bottomlands must be protected.

“If you remove the vegetation, you remove the fish,” he said. “If you remove the vegetation, you lose your armoring (against erosion). In my mind as a biologist, they have great value.”

Thomas Burton, a Michigan State University zoology, fishery and wildlife biologist, stressed that coastal wetlands are important whether they are submerged or not.

“Any time that a wetland dries out, wetland species germinate and start to come in,” he said. “That’s a natural phenomenon that’s ‘meant to be. If you take that out, then the function of the wetland is going to be harmed substantially.”

He added that coastal wetland vegetation function like swamp vegetation. It provides feeding and nesting areas for waterfowl, safe nurseries for young fish, filters for lake water, and erosion control for adjacent beaches.

Who owns it?
But Joseph McBride, a leader of the property owners’ group Save Our Shorelines (SOS), says the issue is shoreline owners’ rights to maintain their beaches as they see fit.

“If a person wants to take out the weeds they have in front of their property, yes, they should be able to do that — all weeds, if that’s what they want to do” he said. “As a property owner, I think that’s right. You have the same right to take out all of the weeds in your flower garden.”

Mr. McEwen responded that a shoreline is not a backyard garden; lakefront deeds extend only to a beach’s historic high-water mark. Michigan owns the rest. “That’s why they need a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and also the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to move rock or to groom or to put in a dock,” Mr. McEwen explained. “It’s because it’s a public trust.”

The Senate committee chair, Saugatuck Township Republican Patty Birkholz, said that over the next two weeks she would steer hearings towards the broader issues the bill has raised and “help those property owners that need help. But we want to be very cautious about going statewide with legislation that doesn’t meet all the needs of all the different kinds of shoreline that we have in Michigan.”

What’s In a Name?
Since Saginaw Bay’s shoreline is so atypical, it is not surprising that this is where the bottomlands controversy and Mr. McBride’s group originated.

 “What we have in Saginaw Bay is actually supposed to be a wetland, not a beach,” Mr. McEwen of the watershed council said. “Historically over the millennia, it has indeed been a coastal marsh. It hasn’t been a sugar-sand beach, like the proponents are claiming. If there’s supposed to be a beach there, then there is a beach there.”

Mr. McBride disagreed, although he acknowledged that the bay has experienced periodic low-water periods and shoreline plant growth in the past.

“These are not wetlands. These are beaches,” Mr. McBride claimed. “I’m looking at my beach and I’m saying: Is that a bog, is that a swamp, is that a marsh? I don’t see it. The picture doesn’t come clear to me.”

But Dennis Albert, Ph.D., the interim director of the Michigan Natural Features Inventory and a former program ecologist, insists that the exposed bottomlands are indeed wetlands, even though they don’t always look like it. Along a Great Lake, he said, nature works differently than in a traditional swamp.

“Many of these coastal wetlands are dynamic enough — there’s a lot of wave action, that’s part the system — so they don’t tend to have the accumulations of muck,” Mr. Albert said. “That’s part of the reason that people say, ‘Why are you calling this a wetland? It’s sand.’”

Mr. Albert said that most shoreline wetlands are sandy, and that the wetlands’ vegetation holds down both the sand and interspersed pockets of organic, or mucky, materials.

Mosquito haven?
The most head-turning claim by proponents is that grooming would squelch the mosquito population, which spreads West Nile virus. But Mr. McEwen and Mr. Burton reject that.

“These ponds or these puddles that are in the bottomlands are buffeted by winds constantly,” Mr. McEwen said. “They’re over-washed by waves. It is less-than-ideal habitat for mosquitoes.”

“We’ve collected invertebrates there for many years and rarely, if ever, collected any mosquitoes,” said Mr. Burton, a veteran researcher of the bay’s wetlands. He added that when he has found mosquitoes along the Great Lakes, they were in inland swales between ridges that parallel the beach. “The part that they’re talking about mowing is the edge of the lake habitat; it’s not that stuff between ridges where the mosquitoes are bred.”

Debating the Common Good
As the Senate committee continues to work on the bill, Ms. Birkholz indicated she’s unconvinced by the arguments of its opponents.

“To see what appears to be a lot of junk—organisms—that are growing in there that certainly don’t look healthy: They’ve definitely got an issue that needs to be dealt with,” she said. But when asked what kinds of things could be done to, as she put it, “help those people this year,” Sen. Birkholz would only say that she was “not prepared to go into a lot of detail.”

Meanwhile Mr. McEwen has a problem referring to the activity the legislation allows — removing four inches of sand or soil and all vegetation from any exposed areas — as “beach grooming.”

“What we’re talking about is an exemption that allows for the mechanized plowing, disking and sand leveling of all Great Lakes coastline, which is about 3,200 miles,” he said. “So it’s not just beach grooming. It’s allowing for basically industrial mechanization of the entire coastline, whether it’s sandy, rocky, mucky, it doesn’t matter.”

“The overall value to the citizens of the area is something that should be considered when talking about plowing up in front of someone’s house,” Mr. Burton said. “It doesn’t belong to those homeowners there, and so it should be protected, I would think, just like we should protect any resource that the state has for the good of its citizens. I’ve worked now for more than 15 years in the wetlands over there, and the area deserves all the protection it can get.”

Dr. Leslie Mertz is an expert in worldwide amphibian decline. This is her first article for the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. She can be reached at LMERTZ@nasw.org.

Michigan Land Use Institute

148 E. Front Street, Suite 301
Traverse City, MI 49684-5725
p (231) 941-6584 
e comments@mlui.org