Northeast Michigan local officials learn how to protect lake quality

Planning and zoning for shoreline areas present both opportunities and challenge for local officials, as participants learned during a recent workshop in northeast Michigan.

Inland lakes are one of northern Michigan’s most prized resources. Keeping those lakes clear and clean is a primary goal in many community master plans. Zoning regulation is one of the tools used to protect water resources, especially in more heavily developed shoreline areas.

Over 50 northeast Michigan planning and zoning officials attended a workshop in early December to learn more about specific zoning standards and other options for regulating shoreline areas to protect lake quality.

During the workshop, participants discussed the principal goals of shoreline regulation – to prevent phosphorus inputs and shoreline erosion, and to maintain shoreline habitat. The challenge for communities is translating those general goals into practical, efficient and enforceable regulations. Four aspects are the focus for most communities: setbacks from the lakeshore, natural buffer strips, impervious surfaces and shoreline erosion protection structures.

Development patterns differ quite a bit from lake to lake, so coming up with a defensible standard that protects water quality without becoming onerous is hard work. Workshop attendees learned about example reports from Michigan and Minnesota that include specific recommendations for setbacks and buffer strip depths. Those and other sources provide a science-based rationale for local regulation. The difficult task is matching ideal standards with the reality of existing shoreline development. For example, an ideal 100-foot building setback from the lake makes little sense around a fully-developed lake with homes generally within 30 feet of the shore.

Local officials face a similar dilemma with required buffer strips. Many ordinances require that a natural buffer of trees and shrubs be maintained between the buildings and shoreline, if it exists prior to development or redevelopment. This is an effective approach when the natural buffer is still intact, but what about existing development where lawns extend to the shore? To move toward a more continuous buffer across both types of properties, some communities require that a new buffer strip be established when expansion or redevelopment occurs.

Discussion was lively around the question of how to regulate not just new development, but activities after development takes place. For example, buffer requirements mandate that a natural barrier be maintained by the residents, but typically allow removal of dead and diseased plants and trees, and creating lake views. When those maintenance provisions are part of a zoning ordinance, it falls to the zoning administrator to monitor activities along the shoreline, sometimes a difficult enforcement challenge.

Despite these challenges, utilizing zoning as one approach to protecting shorelines is important in northern Michigan communities. Education, lake association initiatives, county and state programs and other techniques also contribute to local water protection efforts.

For more information about shoreline zoning regulations, see a two-part article published in 2012 by Michigan State University Extension.

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