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Crumbling Great Lakes shorelines have residents moving homes to safety

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News
Norma Mendenhall (red coat), 88, takes a photo of her home as she stands on a staircase leading down to Lake Michigan in Shelby, south of Ludington. Norma has lived here for 58 years but now bluff erosion threatens to destroy her home and those of her neighbors.

Shoreline erosion this winter has gotten to the point that Phil Jonassen pulls homes off foundations, drags them several dozen yards away from Lake Michigan and leaves them sitting there on blocks, appearing forlorn against the sharp winter wind.

Phil Jonassen of Jonassen Inc. Structural Movers points out the erosion that has taken place since he started working to move houses in Shelby, Mich. threatened by the erosion of the Lake Michigan shoreline.

It is, Jonassen said, the best that can be done for the time being. He pointed to a house on a cul-de-sac in Oceana County, near Lake Michigan, that he recently pulled away from the water. “It was move it or lose it,” he said.

A building mover with decades of experience, his company, Phil Jonassen Inc., has transported houses around Shelby and other lake shore municipalities. Jonassen and other movers have dotted the Lake Michigan shoreline with them.

Business is booming in building moving.

It is the ultimate solution to a natural problem: When the Great Lakes, and associated waterways, get bigger, they make room for themselves.

The lakes, approaching record heights and forecast to stay there for a while, offer no solace or consolation. If there is a building, a road or someone’s dreams in the way, they snatch them.

They have left an 89-year-old woman distraught over the only home she has ever known tumbling off a cliff into Lake Michigan. People have lost houses in their families for generations that, three summers ago, had several dozen yards — ample room for fully-fielded softball games — between houses and water.

Property owners near Holland have reacted like the Dutch, uniting to finance massive sandbagging operations and seawalls.

And the state is wary that a scenic section of M-25, running several miles along the outside of the Thumb, with panoramic views of Lake Huron, may have to be reconstructed.

Besides the physical challenge of picking up a building and moving it, there are bureaucratic obstacles as well.

“... what a lot of these people are running into is that the authorities are so slow on doing their (permits) that, if you waited for a permit the house is going to fall in. So, every house I got in the works right now, I literally did with no permits,” Jonassen said. “They are sitting on my steel. We just picked them up and moved them back, so they wouldn’t fall in the water.

“I guess you’d call the houses kind of in purgatory, you know?” he said.

Homes at risk

Many residents of the shore are experiencing something more like hell.

Norma Mendenhall of Benona Township and her family reinforced the shore for almost 50 years, through a series of five construction projects. When Great Lakes levels declined sharply in the past decade, they felt victorious.

Now, Mendenhall stares defeat in the face.

“The worst thing started last spring,” she said. “After March winds are over with, scouring you out, then the waves come. They do the destruction.

“We put a lot of money and work into the shoreline, trying to preserve the shoreline.

“Thanksgiving eve, I decided I had to get out of there,” Mendenhall said. “Two weeks ago, this Sunday, (the house) was moved back.

“Since then, the soil in front of the cement blocks, which the house is sitting on, have begun to cave in.

“And I’m not the only one,” she said. “I feel sometimes like I am the only one. But I’m not; my neighbors are suffering too.”

Government officials say have taken note and are moving on multiple fronts.

They say they are reacting to cyclical conditions involving water levels that last reached similar levels 30 to 35 years ago, and that a warming globe is likely adding to the moisture.

A late freeze, with a lack of ice in the water that can act as a buffer for the shore, is contributing to the problem this winter.

State and federal officials say they have acted to shorten approval times and move quickly to process an overwhelming number of applications for approvals that inundated them throughout much of 2019, even before the powerful, prevailing winds of winter.

For the first quarter of this fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy received 452 permit applications for work along Great Lakes shorelines.

At that rate, according to department spokesman Nick Assendelft, there may be about 1,800 applications for the full fiscal year.

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

For the year ending Sept. 30, there were 836.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also must approve some work that alters the shoreline. A spokesman for the federal agency said the average number of applications for October, November and December is 120, 139 and 140, respectively.

The remainder of what was once three retaining walls can be seen covered by water along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Shelby.

In 2019, the corps of engineers received 394, 393 and 314 applications, respectively, in the three months.

Homes have been approved for removal by the state in Berrien, Emmet, Mason, Muskegon and Ottawa counties, Assendelft said. 

Along Lake Michigan, in the first quarter of the current fiscal year, the state received 239 applications for permits. That is four more in three months than in the previous 12 months, he said.

From Oceana to Berrien counties, along the lengthy, westerly shore of the big lake, there were 110 permit applications in the first quarter, compared with 78 for all of the previous year.

Some of the work is for placing barriers along beaches to protect the bluffs above. But many homeowners are opting for a more permanent fix.

“We encourage moving structures away from eroding shorelines,” Assendelft said.  “It’s a longer-term solution than installing and maintaining shoreline protection.”

'It's time to move'

Building movers all over the state, some far inland, say they have noticed the spike in demand.

“Inquiries have increased by an exponential factor, basically,” said Dan Deitz of Deitz House Moving Engineers in Muskegon.

A house remains lifted after being moved back from the edge of the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan on what once was North Lakeshore Drive at Juniper Beach in Golden Township. Part of North Lakeshore Drive has fallen into Lake Michigan due to high lake levels causing shoreline erosion.

“There’s preparation, there is permits, there’s a lot of planning. So people have to take a look at their situation and be ready. Or, you know, if I’ve got 20 feet left, it’s time to move!”

Timing is one issue. Financing is another.

“We had one emergency call late last year from up in Oscoda, and people didn’t want to do anything because the insurance company was not helping them out,” said Scott Penoyer of S&W House & Structural Movers in Schwartz Creek.

“I imagine they lost their house by now.”

Despite his location off the water, in the center of the state, Penoyer said the increase in jobs and inquiries is noticeable.

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

So is the need, he said.

“People don’t have $30,000, $40,000 to move it back; $50,000 by the time you get the foundation in,” Penoyer said.

“So what do you do? You just sit there and watch it go.”

State lawmakers say they're trying to address the problem. 

Disaster aid is not currently an option because of the ongoing nature of the problem, said state Rep. Bradley Slagh, R-Zeeland.

“Part of the disaster thing is that you have to have a certain dollar amount and a beginning and end date. We do not have an end date, at this time,” Slagh said. “But, we believe we need to work on something.

“If we don’t help people stop the erosion, we are going to have to figure out how we can help people clean up Lake Michigan. Because houses are going to go in, septic systems are going to go in. We’re going to have boards and nails in the water.

After a community meeting earlier this winter, called by the legislators and attended by state and federal officials, permit fees were lowered and the state put more personnel on the review process, Slagh said.

Fees for sandbagging operations were lowered from $500 to $100. For the same $100 fee, property owners can obtain permission for permanent stone revetments or stone rip-rap, which are more durable than sandbags.

U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga, R-Zeeland, also has marshaled officials to help streamline permit reviews, according to Brian Patrick, a spokesman for the congressman.

Huizenga also sponsored legislation to provide financing for the construction of natural barriers. It has passed the House and is waiting for action in the Senate.

The so-called Huizenga Amendment would make certain that no less than $5 million annually is spent on a Living Shoreline Program for the Great Lakes region.

“This would help set up natural barriers to prevent erosion,” Patrick said.

A meeting is planned next month to discuss possible solutions. The panel session is scheduled for 6 p.m. Feb. 27 at the Holland Civic Center Place, sponsored by the realty company Coldwell Banker Woodland Schmidt.

"Lake Michigan & Waterfront Erosion 2020" will feature Slagh; Kevin Strychar of the Annis Water Resources Institute at Grand Valley State University; lawyer Scott Kraemer; Gregory Weykamp, who specialized in the development of sustainable waterfront properties at Edgewater Resources: John Meyer, a real estate appraiser; and a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers.

This staircase used to lead to Juniper Beach in Golden Township but the bottom of the stairs have fallen into Lake Michigan.

In Holland, where tales of the Dutch saving their European land from the sea have been told since the city was founded, the herculean efforts to save property and homes are expensive, largely self-financed and in a state of advance preparation, for some owners.

“Probably, within the last four years, we’ve lost about, conservatively, I would say, 75 feet of our dune,” said Scott Faustyn, whose mother-in-law’s property on Lakeshore Drive has been in the family since the 1950s.

“So our stairs are gone. It’s starting to encroach on their house a bit. Neighbors a couple of miles from us had to move their house back because it was about to fall in,” Faustyn said. “It’s pretty dire.

"I’ve been going out there for about 35 years, and the last time it happened, it was nothing like this,” he said. “This is truly a game-changer for the shoreline.”

Faustyn and six neighbors have gathered resources to launch a massive rescue operation, laying down sandbags bigger than pickup trucks to shore up the dunes and bluffs in the area.

He credited the legislators and government officials with helping to expedite the process.

“These are huge sandbags,” Fautsyn said. “They are 25 feet long. They are massive. It’s certainly a more attractive cost factor than building a seawall. And, you can’t get anyone to build a seawall right now.

“The backlog is pretty serious at this point.”

gkrupa@detroitnews.com