Mid-Michigan family ordered to move pool away from lake that isn't there

Julie Moss and her family thought it was a great idea: an outdoor pool to enjoy the waning warm days at their new home in Gladwin County's Tobacco Township.

But local officials disagree. They told Moss the pool purchased last month violates zoning rules stipulating it had to be 25 feet away from the water’s edge.

Or at least that's where it would have been except that the canal facing their “front yard” is empty after nearby Wixom Lake was depleted following historic May storms that led to two dams failing and massive flooding in much of mid-Michigan.

This is the 4-foot tall pool erected by the Moss family next to the empty canal at their home in Tobacco Township. Local officials say the pool is too close to the water’s edge despite the fact that there is water no water in Wixom Lake, which feeds the canal off of which they live.

It's not clear when — or if — the dams will ever be restored, and the lakes replenished, though estimates suggest it could happen within five years, if all goes well. Moss risks a fine for keeping her pool up, but she’s not backing down yet.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” she told The Detroit News. “How do you define a normal water’s edge and 25 feet from water that’s not even there?”

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Moss, her husband and their 11-year-old son last month moved from Freeland, in a nearby county, into the ranch-style home they bought at a bargain price. The previous owner, she said, couldn’t find buyers amid the coronavirus pandemic and the record flooding that washed out other houses nearby.

They figured the property would no longer be considered a lakefront residence. But missing water, Moss sought advice from the region’s Four Lakes Task Force, a nonprofit involved with maintain local waterways, about installing a 4-foot-high temporary pool the family already had.

Hearing no problems, they labored, sometimes with neighbors’ help, to add a sandy foundation to boost the new swimming spot, Moss said. 

Later, on Aug. 28, to resolve a question from another neighbor about their home’s property boundaries, Moss had a surveying company out.

It wasn’t until three days later that she said she received a business card from the township zoning administrator, John Sydenstricker. When Moss called him, he told her she should have sought a permit, and per zoning rules, the pool needed to be 25 feet from the water’s edge, even if that meant the distance to an empty canal that was once a part of Wixom Lake.

“He’s giving me until October to take it down,” Moss said, the time she requested. But that doesn’t solve the problem about next year and complying with other zoning rules about distances from neighboring properties, she said.

“There is literally nowhere to put this pool unless I put it in my driveway,” she said.

Moss also pointed out the language the zoning administrator showed her doesn’t specifically say pools. It specifies fences must be 25 feet from the normal water's edge.

“If I’m not considered to live on a lakefront, then you can’t go after me about some 25-foot rule that pertains to a fence,” she said.

Moss shared her concerns on a local Facebook group. "I just want a temp pool for the kids until the situation with the lake gets corrected," she wrote.

Her message quickly garnered responses. Many supporters urged her to hold strong.

“Leave it where it is,” one user wrote. “In a flood and pandemic the bureacrats (sic) need to stand down. They're part of the reason we're in the mess we're in.”

Moss hoped to discuss her options with an attorney who reached out.

Tobacco Township Supervisor Craig Bergman said he didn't know anything about Moss' plight until a reporter called him seeking comment. 

"We're a small, rural township but I don't always hear about everything," Bergman said. 

He referred questions to Sydenstricker.

Sydenstricker said the township ordinance remains in effect even though there's no water in the lake. He said the rules are in place for safety reasons and even though the lake is currently just muck, the water will be back.

"It also plays into things like access during emergencies," he said. "And normally all the houses in the neighborhood are waterfront properties. Things like pools affect their view (of the lake.)"

Sydenstricker said he talked to Moss and told her that since she just put the pool up, it could remain until the end of the month. 

Another view of the pool in the family's yard.

If she puts it up again next year, she will have to apply for a permit, he said. She also will have to put it in her front yard to comply with the ordinance.

Moss wonders why the township officials are being fussy.

"Our whole area here was flooded," she said. "Now it’s like: do we really have to fight about this?"