CONCERNS

It was standing room only on Jan. 2 as many property owners who have had damage caused by Lake Huron’s record-high water levels came to the Iosco County Board of Commissioners to vent about property damage and perceived government inaction on the issue.

TAWAS CITY – Residents and property owners along Lake Huron’s shoreline vented frustrations with damage and their perceived lack of government action during an often heated session of the Iosco County Board of Commissioners. The discussion took place during their first meeting of the year held Jan. 2.

Commissioners, who listened to the residents, told the public they would do everything in their power to help in the situation. Many were concerned with the lack of a disaster declaration by the county due to the coastal flooding and mass erosion damages caused by the high lake levels.

As reported by the Army Corps of Engineers, there are currently record levels on the Great Lakes, with the highest lake levels ever record. Experts warn that the levels will only increase in the coming year.

Baldwin Township resident Mary Beardsley said that property owners near here lake front residence feel “abandoned” by the government.

“I guess Tawas City is trying to see about getting help from the federal government,” she said. “They need to come out to Ottawa Lane to see real destruction; my neighbors their house is totally flooded and we have water going all the way to US-23, that’s 100 yards from the lake.”

Beardsley said that her perceived government inaction was especially hard to take because of the amount of taxes she had to pay on her property.

Beardsley was referencing recent motion by the Tawas City Council to back a request by municipalities to ask for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to declare a shoreline disaster for Michigan. 

Another lake front owner, James Moody, told commissioners that the lake front taxes were too high on his vacation home and he felt that the government was abusing him.

“We live downstate and we pay taxes up here,” he said. “We pay at a higher percentage rate than the citizens but we have no say on what goes on, it’s kind of irritating and it’s kind of amusing; we’re sitting there and being abused.” 

Moody said for him what is irksome is that if property owners try to do something about high water, such as get the installation of rip wrap or a break wall, the government agencies will step in. For example those who have been placing large limestone boulders on the lake shore to help forestall erosion, must get a permit from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), which was formally known as the Department of Environmental Quality.

“If we try to do something about it we run afoul of the DEQ, the DNR, the ‘XYZ,’” he quipped. “We have every possible entity after us.”

Moody went on to allege that he has been charged higher taxes and permit fees to place rocks because he is a non-resident of Iosco County. He also alleged that as a non-resident he was afforded fewer county services, and said he wanted to get rid of his Iosco County holdings but his property couldn’t be sold “because it’s destroyed.”

East Tawas resident Ron Starling told commissioners that although he has a steel break wall on his property, the waves are still coming over it, undercutting the surface and damaging his property. He said he’s paid to have boulders put into place, as well as put some on East Tawas-owned lake front property after alleging his request for the city to do something about their erosion was dismissed.

He said that although some in the county have been given sandbags by the county, which were obtained by the Army Corps of Engineers, they are ineffective in his opinion, for one, because they must be filled by the person who gets the bags.

“I talked to people who have used them along hurricane areas, they don’t last, they will provide a short period of time to interior buildings, but  only short periods, water seeps through and the next storm washes them away, the big waves pull them right up,” he said. “It’s not a permanent type of solution, we need some relief that allows us to do a little bit more than what the Corps, or the ENGL (will let us do).”

Starling complained that there is too much bureaucracy to wade through when trying to get permits or government help, and also complained that there are no contractors around to do the work that needs to be done to protect property. 

“I’ve heard someone say it’s two years before they will promise them that they’ll go do something for them.” he said. “This problem is going to get worse, they say (the lake level is) going up eight to 12 inches next year.”

Chairman Robert Huebel said that although county officials were sympathetic to the issues, there was only so much that could be done.

“We are limited in our abilities when some of the folks talked about dealing with people higher up the chain than what we are,” he said. “A lot of what we can provide is letters of support. I wish I could snap my fingers and make it all better but it is kind of higher up.”

Iosco County Emergency Management Coordinator Ed Rohn as well as Seventh District Coordinator Lt. Michael Decastro, were in attendance at the meeting and Huebel invited them to answer questions or address issues. After the meeting in fact the pair met with concerned property owners to field questions about the situation.

But, during the meeting one allegation by the public was that no one in state government was doing anything for residents, going to either Lansing or Washington to give testimony on the issues occurring in Michigan.

Commissioner Terry Dutcher said that was simply not true. He said he recently received a letter from State Rep. Sue Allor, which was authored by herself and state Representatives Shane Hernandez, Annette Glenn, Jason Wentworth and Phil Green, asking Gov. Whitmer to declare a state of emergency for the Lake Huron shoreline due to high water levels and erosion. The letter was sent to Lansing Dec. 18.

“Collectively, we have received letters and comments from business owners, city officials and home owners regarding the extent  of the damage caused by rising water levels,” as stated in the letter. “Homes and businesses have been severely damaged, roads are under water, and state parks have been closed. Sand dunes are crumbling into the water and boat launches are submerged. Many of our residents have been affected and are now in desperate need of assistance from their state and federal governments.”

The letter went on to say that by declaring a disaster, it would open up funding for those affected.

Dutcher said that although it is an emergency situation it is dissimilar from a situation, say like a hurricane or tornado. This is because, he argued, that the damage in Michigan has been gradual where a tornado or hurricane is immediate.

“It’s slower but just as devastating to people on the lake shore, but it’s a little bit different and there are other avenues for that type of a situation,” he said. “It’s going to take the state to declare a disaster, and then go to the federal government to get the funds to help, as far as I know they are in the process of that.”

As far as permit costs, Vice Chairman Jay O’Farrell said he would work to get the permits at a reduced cost or waived through the county’s building department. Rohn said he believed that the Corps was working to reduce fees on the permits and expedite them so work could be done faster. Previously, Rohn said the county should wait on declaring its own disaster declaration for various reasons, including that the state was on the verge of declaring a situation. 

An early declaration by the county, he argued late last year, could affect future emergency funding revenues into Iosco County.

Laurence Lavoie, who gave public comment, did not agree with Rohn and said the county should act.

“I’m specifically asking you to not wait on a disaster declaration,” he said. “If you had a forest fire coming you would call the fire department darn quick. It’s time for us to ask for some help.”

He also alleged that the high lake levels could easily be controlled by the Army Corps of Engineers – which he further alleged was purposely not lowering the levels.

“Ask the Corps to lower the lake levels to normal,” he said. “It’s as simple as to ask them to do that. But they are going to say they can’t, but they lowered it in 1986 in six months. How did that happen? There are a lot of ways to play with the lake level.”

Decastro disagreed and said there is no instant fix to the lake level issue. He said that lake levels are cyclical in nature and that the lakes have been receiving more water than normal, with storms coming in from different directions.

He said a major way the level drops is through evaporation versus releasing water into areas. Releasing lots of water would further flood other areas, essentially “passing the buck” on the flooding issue to someone else.

“Also, Public Act 390 is for tornadoes, fire and other things,” he said. “This doesn’t fall under it. It protects critical infrastructure at the government level. You also have to exhaust your local resources before you make that request. The governor’s office is well aware (of the situation) and you are taking the right steps. It’s seeing what can be done at a statewide level, there is discussion at her level, I think there is even a work group that has been put together.”

Decastro said that it took years to get to this level and it would likely take years for the problem to be fully fixed. He was interrupted in his discussion, however, by Lavoie who claimed that Decastro was lying and that he was spreading misinformation about the situation.

Huebel asked Lavoie to lead a more civil discourse in the meeting and told the audience that it was not a debate about the issue, only public comment. He assured the group, however, that the issues are in the wheelhouse of the county.

“We will do what we are capable of doing, getting the letters out, lowering the fees where we can, and we will brainstorm some things and try to do what we can. But again I’m not trying to pass the buck, but at our level there is only so much we can do. We can get stuff out there and reiterate that we have problems, and hopefully down in Lansing they get smothered with letters from not just Iosco County but all along the shoreline. It doesn’t hurt individuals to get some word out there.”