GOP donor to lawmakers: Act on beach erosion or 'donations will ... diminish'

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Michigan Republican donor and businessman Peter Secchia urged GOP lawmakers to take action on the erosion of beachfront properties while raising the potential for diminishing "donations," according to a Nov. 4 memo.

Secchia sent the letter to House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, and other lawmakers with the subject line "the erosion of our Ottawa County Lake Michigan beach properties along with photos."

In the memo, which was obtained by the liberal group Progress Michigan, Secchia mentioned potentially swallowing a "$6 million property loss."

"There seems to be little interest in the Michigan House of Representatives or the Michigan Senate," Secchia's memo also said. "This lack of concern mystifies me. Our property values will diminish greatly ... hence, our donations will also diminish."

Peter Secchia, shown here in 2006 on the sidelines of an MSU basketball game, says parents who are worried about their children's safety should "take them somewhere else."

Secchia confirmed to The Detroit News he sent a memo to lawmakers and wrote a section about the potential for cutting donations.

But the former U.S. ambassador to Italy said he wasn't tying action on lakefront erosion to political contributions. If the houses on Michigan's shore fall into the lake, property owners will have "drastic financial considerations," Secchia said. Sometimes, he said, the first spending that goes are political and charitable contributions.

"I am not threatening anybody," Secchia said. "I am just saying, 'Hey guys, think about this.'"

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But the situation "represents a threat to the integrity of how laws get passed in Lansing," said Sam Inglot, deputy director of Progress Michigan. He referenced GOP bills introduced in the Legislature in the months after the memo that would ease permitting for projects aimed at preventing erosion.

"There is a major problem when wealthy donors like Peter Secchia are the ones calling the shots," Inglot said. "Our elected officials are supposed to work for what’s best for the people, not what's best for campaign donors."

Lakes Michigan and Huron set an all-time record level for January that eclipsed a mark set in 1987. The Army Corps of Engineers has projected the lakes will record an all-time high in February as well. Record water levels have caused what's been labeled a "crisis" along the shoreline with some homes falling into Lake Michigan.

In early December, Chatfield, 10 Republicans lawmakers and one Democratic legislator sent a letter asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a state of emergency for the Lake Michigan shoreline. The Whitmer administration said at the time it would review the request but indicated emergency resources were already available that county emergency managers could tap but hadn’t.

Rep. Jim Lilly, R-Macatawa, introduced bills on Dec. 19 that would allow residents to immediately begin protecting their properties without having to obtain an individual permit. His proposal would also says that homeowners' property taxes shouldn't increase because of the improvements, according to his office.

This is a copy of a memo that was obtained by the liberal group Progress Michigan. The letter from Peter Secchia urged key state lawmakers to take action on the erosion of lakefront properties.

Sen. Roger Victory, R-Hudsonville, introduced another bill in the Senate on Jan. 9 that would allow certain owners of properties threatened by erosion to temporarily install erosion control structures without a state permit.

The Senate approved Victory's bill three weeks later on Jan. 30 despite concerns from Whitmer's administration that the proposal went too far in easing permitting requirements and could allow some homeowners' faulty projects to harm neighbors' properties.

In late November, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy created a streamlined permitting process to place sandbags along lake shore property to slow down beach erosion. The new so-called Minor Project category makes way for a reduced $100 fee and a faster-permitting process that means no longer requiring homeowners to get a public notice for these types of stabilization projects.

A number of lawmakers rejected the idea this week that Secchia had influenced their actions.

Lilly said in a statement that he had hundreds of people reach out to his office asking for help with the issue.

Asked about Secchia's memo, Shirkey's spokeswoman Amber McCann said, "The majority leader recalls receiving the letter. He threw it away."

The House speaker received the letter but didn't respond "because he does not link campaign and policy issues," Chatfield spokesman Gideon D'Assandro said. Chatfield made a similar statement in December during the bribery trial of state Rep. Larry Inman, R-Williamsburg. Chatfield testified that there's a "commonly" understood rule that lawmakers not directly link fundraising to legislation.

In his letter to lawmakers, Secchia said the beach had been eroded within eight feet of one of his properties, a decrease of 131 feet from past calculations.

"It is hard to laugh when you are about to swallow a $6 million property loss," Secchia wrote in the memo to lawmakers. He also mentioned a neighboring property his family owns that he valued at $2.5 million.

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

The Secchia family owns a property in Ferrysburg, and a neighboring property is owned by a company connected to the family, according to Ottawa County property records.

Secchia told The News he is fighting to save his summer home.

"I am not looking for any special favor," he added. "I am just looking some kind of action that would help everybody."

In the memo, Secchia said people in California who had lost houses would be filing forms "to get reimbursed by the state of California for their losses."

"Those of us who have good sized investments in our Lake Michigan property have nowhere to look," Secchia wrote. "Do we need to ask the Michigan state Legislature to appropriate funds for those of us who have lost lakefront property valued from $4 million - $6 million?"

Asked what Michigan lawmakers should do, Secchia didn't provide a specific answer in an interview.

"Somebody has got to do something or the whole coast of Michigan suffers," he said.

Such written correspondence with state lawmakers doesn't have to be disclosed in  Michigan because the state is one of two that exempts both the Legislature and the governor's office from open records laws.

Secchia has been involved in Republican politics and political fundraising for decades. The Michigan Republican Party's headquarters in Lansing even features his last name. It's called the Secchia-Weiser Republican Center.

Under President George H.W. Bush, Secchia served as ambassador to Italy from 1989 to 1992. The Secchia family was the 25th most active family in Michigan in terms of political contributions for the 2018 election, according to the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network. Family members contributed a total of $573,000 at the state and national levels.

So far in 2019-20 cycle, Secchia has given $60,000 to Chatfield's political action committees, $40,000 to the House Republicans' main fundraising committee and $41,000 to the Senate Republicans' main fundraising committee, according to campaign finance records.

Of those contributions, only $21,000 provided to the Senate Republicans' committee on Dec. 30 came after the Nov. 4 letter. His wife, Joan Secchia, contributed $29,000 to the Senate Republicans' committee on Dec. 30, according to campaign finance records. 

Whitmer's budget proposal for Fiscal Year 2021 included $40 million for local "climate resilient infrastructure grants" for projects that aim to protect communities "from the negative impacts of Michigan's changing climate conditions."