Amid high water levels, bill advances to overhaul permit process for erosion projects

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A Michigan Senate committee approved Tuesday a bill that would significantly ease permitting requirements for property owners looking to combat high water levels and prevent shoreline erosion from damaging their homes.

While officials with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy voiced concerns about the proposal, Senate Environmental Quality Committee Chairman Rick Outman called the legislation "urgent."

"We’ve got a lot of people that are in very desperate need of this work," said Outman, R-Six Lakes. "We’re just trying to expedite.”

Lake Michigan erosion claims Patricia "Tish" Gancer's beach house, pictured on Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, in White River Township, near Montague, Mich.

The bill, Senate Bill 714, would allow certain shore land property owners to construct temporary erosion control structures without a permit. In order to qualify, lake levels would have to be high, hitting standards like 581.5 feet above sea level for Lake Michigan, which is the currently the level, according to the Army Corps of Engineers.

Property owners would have to use materials approved by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and hire licensed contractors. They'd also have to notify state environmental regulators. A year and a half later, they'd have to seek a permit for a permanent structure or remove the temporary structure.

Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, sponsored the proposal. Victory said he visited a lakefront property that had received a notice to evacuate because of erosion and heard from other homeowners worried about their homes crumbling into Lake Michigan.

Homeowners told him the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy had been difficult to work with, Victory said. He also said Ohio and Wisconsin have emergency protocols already in place.

Pam Stille of Spring Lake, who owns a home on Lake Michigan, spoke at the committee hearing in favor of the bill. Her 80-year-old neighbors recently came to her home crying because they were afraid they would lose their house to erosion, Stille told the committee.

"These people need to move rapidly to save their homes," Stille said of neighbors. "They don’t have time to wait for permits."

“The street we live on looks like Beirut right now," she added. "It’s not pretty."

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy has attempted to speed up the permitting process for erosion control measures such as placing rocks or constructing seawalls. The department has also diverted staff to focus on the matter, Whitmer administration officials said.

Since Oct. 1, the state has issued about 450 shoreline protection permits, and two-thirds of the permits have been issued within seven days of receiving an application, officials told the committee.

Although the department agrees with the bill's goal, it's concerned about how it achieves the goal, said Jerrod Sanders, assistant director for the department's water resources division.

Erosion control projects done improperly could harm the lakes and neighbors' properties, Sanders said. Also, property owners may have to spend large sums of money to remove structures 18 months later if they are out of compliance, he noted.

"There are a lot of inexperienced contractors doing work out on the lake shore right now," Sanders said.

The department is concerned it wouldn't have any authority to address poorly constructed structures for a year and a half.

The Republican-led committee voted 5-2, along party lines, to advance the bill to the full Senate.