Implementing shoreline landscaping requires pre-planning

Careful thought and planning can allow you to design a sustainable shoreline landscape that provides aesthetic, environmental, ecological and economic benefits.

With proper thought and planning, it is possible to design a shoreline that protects and enhances healthy aquatic habitats and offers an aesthetically pleasing view of and access to the lake. If you have some challenges with your shoreline, it may not be easy to envision what a healthy shoreline might look like. If you are planning a natural shoreline landscape along your inland lake, determining your personal needs and wants while keeping in mind legal and financial needs, drawing a base map of your property, conducting a site inventory, and integrating your goals with healthy lake ecosystem goals are critical to a project’s success. This article will discuss each of these steps:

  • Determine personal wants and needs. When getting started with a project, it is extremely important to carefully consider your personal wants and needs. Things to consider include determining what type of access you want to the lake: Do you want to have a dock for boating, swimming and fishing or do you want native plants along your entire shoreline? Do you want several different areas on your property (formal, manicured lawn, sandy beach, natural shoreline with a manicured look, plantings which look “wild”)? Do you need pathways and/or sitting areas?
  • Determine legal needs. Do you have the legal authority to implement your plan?  Are there local ordinances and/or state and federal permit requirements needed to implement elements of your project? Any construction activity that involves earthen work requires a local or county-issued soil erosion and sedimentation control permit. In addition, inland lakes and streams are regulated and protected under Michigan law in Part 301, Inland Lakes and Streams, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), 1994 P.A. 451. For example, if your project involves bioengineering activities below the ordinary high water mark (OHWM) and the bottomlands, a permit will be required. The OHWM refers to the line between upland and bottomland that persists through successive changes in water levels, below which the presence and action of the water is so common or recurrent that the character of the land is marked distinctly. Consult Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for complete information on Part 301 and other permits that may be required under Michigan Law. You should also be aware that some local zoning ordinances require that all applicable county, state and federal permits be obtained before construction begins.      
  • Determine financial needs. What is your potential budget? Do you need to implement your project in phases that stretch over several years? Are you going to do the work yourself or hire a contractor?
  • Draw a base map for your property. Consider everything on your property and draw a simple sketch. Include dimensions of your property with a scale, soil conditions, slope of the site, north arrow, measurements for any buildings, other hardscape features (docks, paths, paved surfaces, etc.), water features, septic or other onsite wastewater system, location of seawalls, water levels, what kind of waves come off the lake and hit the shoreline, condition of adjacent property shorelines, etc. Consider implementing the project in phases over a period of years to avoid being overwhelmed.
  • Conduct a site inventory.  This will help you understand the site’s current conditions so that you can start developing an appropriate design that will help address any site issues that might exist. Include inventories of the various types of plants on the property, location of lawn areas, location of issues such as soil erosion and shoreline instability, low spots in the landscape which might cause issues with stormwater runoff, areas which are not vegetated, light conditions, etc.
  • Integrate your goals with those geared toward encouraging a healthy lake. Use the information you gathered to mesh your goals with those which will support a healthy lake ecosystem.  For example, divide the property into different zones (upland and various aquatic zones) to clearly identify areas which will require specific plants, identify and prioritize problem areas that need to be addressed to create a stable shoreline and plants that provide habitat for fish and wildlife species.  Integrating the goals in this way will allow you to create a sustainable shoreline landscape that provides aesthetic, environmental, ecological and economic benefits.   

The “Natural Shoreline Landscapes on Michigan’s Inland Lakes: Guidebook for Property Owners” (MSU Extension bulletin #E3145) is a great primer on the topic of natural shorelines and is available from the MSU Extension Bookstore.

If you would like to hire a certified contractor to plan and implement your shoreline planting project, consult the Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership’s list of Michigan Certified Natural Shoreline Professionals.

If you are planning a shoreline project and are trying to determine what kind of planting stock to use, refer to the Michigan State University Extension article, Variety of planting stock available for natural shoreline landscaping.

For more information about natural shorelines, read the MSU Extension article, Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership offers comprehensive inland lake shoreline information or visit the  Michigan Natural Shoreline Partnership web site.

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