An effort to make it easier to groom Great Lakes beaches continues to move forward in Lansing. Right now property owners on the Great Lakes need a permit from the state to weed and mow down by the water. Environmental groups say doing away with that restriction will hurt the lakes. And they warn it could inadvertently let loose an invasive plant many coastal communities have struggled to get control of: phragmites.
Ongoing political dispute
The reason the government has anything to say about what a private property owners do with their beaches is because the Great Lakes rise and fall. When the lake level falls, what was previously part of the bottom of the lake becomes part of the beach. But that exposed bottomland is public property in a sense, even though strangers can’t go picnic there. So if you want to mow it or pull out weeds, you need a permit from both the state and federal government.
A group called Save Our Shoreline is pushing to eliminate the state requirement. David Almeter is a board member who lives in Suttons Bay. He says homeowners just want to keep sandy beaches they’ve had as long as they can remember.
“It’s a property rights issue as much as anything.”
Environmental and angler groups say loosening the rule is a bad idea. What a property owner might call weeds they consider important aquatic vegetation.
This same debate took place around 2007. Andy Knott, with The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay, says a compromise was reached. A general permit was issued that all property owners have to sign up for. It allows mowing and weeding up to 400 square feet of beach. Knott doesn’t understand what the issue is.
“It seems like both sides have been just fine with the general permit that’s been in place the last five years.”
Save Our Shoreline members don’t like the government exercising authority over what they consider public property. And they say two government agencies don’t need to enforce these rules. The state and federal government have rules related to emergent bottomlands.
Supporters of the current permitting system point out only one application has to be filled out and the state is more attentive to the issue than the federal agency can be.
One point the two sides do agree on is that an invasive plant known as phragmites is a big part of the problem. An exotic form of the plant has overrun parts of Saginaw Bay, Beaver Island and Grand Traverse Bay.
Some communities have controlled phragmites with herbicides. But the bill that passed the Michigan Senate appears to prevent townships from coordinating spraying programs since it prohibits local governments from regulating the removal of vegetation.
At the same time, property owners would be able to mow without any permit. Andy Knott says mowing is the best way to spread the plant.
“Every little piece of the plant can sprout a new plant.”
Conservation groups worry this set of circumstances could lead to an explosion of phragmites in places it has been tamped down.
That concern is not shared by Save Our Shoreline. The group’s website refers to beach grooming as an effective way to manage phragmites. David Almeter says he’s kept the plant off his beach and he’d prefer not to use chemicals where his grandchildren will be swimming.
The beach grooming bill was taken up by a house committee this week in Lansing. It could see action next week.
CORRECTION: Previously, this article stated incorrectly that public beaches are not subject to the same permit requirements as private beaches. We apologize for the error.