Life on the Lakes: Natural/soft shoreline

The simple joys of the waterfront lifestyle are not without their difficulties. Among them is the constant battle many owners fight with erosion: the water’s natural tendency to reclaim the land surrounding it.

Traditionally, lakefront, riverfront or canal-facing lots in high erosion areas have required some sort of “buffer” to protect the land. Given the premium value of land with riparian or littoral rights, every square foot of usable area matters, and a hard-surfaced wall (a “seawall”) running parallel to the water’s edge made of steel, wood or concrete is typically employed.

Seawalls, though, can cause harm to the waterways they abut. Hard seawalls can cause “scour” to occur: imagine a wave crashing into your property during a storm. The wave energy has to go somewhere, and often a “washing machine” effect occurs where sediment is removed from under the seawall, creating more erosion and causing increased property damage.

A solution that can both increase property value and decrease erosion and property damage is “bioengineering”, or lakescaping.

Shorelines protected by natural landscaping, vegetation and carefully placed rocks absorb that wave energy and protect your land. This “green” solution can have many benefits, including decreased sediment in the water surrounding your property for greater enjoyment of the lake. Bioengineering also increases biodiversity by reintroducing natural vegetation to the shoreline, and provides a spawning habitat for many fish and invertebrates.

From a legal perspective, in Michigan the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (“ELGE”) is authorized by the State of Michigan to determine what categories of water-related projects require permits to complete. Under the Natural Resources and Environment Protection Act (“NREPA”), certain minor projects (“MPs”) can be fast tracked with a streamlined application and review process.

To determine your eligibility for a bioengineering MP, you must first determine which Bioengineering MP application your property will be the best fit. Unfortunately, if you are a Great Lakes property owner, at this time, a bioengineering MP is not available for your land. If you are an inland lake property owner on a lake where the longest unobstructed distance across the lake to the far shore from your property is less than one (1) mile, don’t own property on an unprotected point or island where erosive forces are high, and the property is not near an access point or marina, you may qualify for the installation criteria and practices of a “Lower Energy Site.”

Most readers will likely fall into this category. Property owners in low energy sites can expect bioengineering plans that include biological erosion control measures (like fiber rolls and brush bundles), limited placement of natural stone (over no more than 25 percent of the total project) and temporary wave break structures to allow the permanent plantings to take root. If you own property in an area on a lake known for higher energy wind and wave events, or with eroded banks over three feet in height from the Ordinary High Water Mark, you likely will need to follow the best practices and criteria for a “Higher Energy Site on Inland lake Shorelines.” If you live on a river or stream where the natural bank is not stable and the bank will not be degraded by bioengineering, you’ll adhere to a separate set of MP practices and criteria (that do not apply to Lower Energy or Higher Energy inland lake sites.) An MP joint permit can be filled out on the Michigan “MiWaters” site. Feel free to call our office with any questions about the permit application process, and pursuing a new, environmentally friendly look for your property’s waterfront.

Richard “Rick” Linnell is the founder of Linnell & Associates PLLC, a real estate law firm specializing in assisting homeowners and real estate professionals in all aspects of real estate law.