Beach erosion tour exposes tension between homeowners, regulators

Rising Waters

SPRING LAKE, Mich. (WOOD) — Lakefront homeowner Pam Stille organized a tour of a Lake Michigan bluff-top neighborhood in part so lawmakers could see firsthand the depth of the erosion crisis.

But she also used the opportunity to voice her frustration with the state’s environmental regulatory agency.

“I’m here to put (this) on the record right now,” Stille announced in front of the dozen or so people who gathered to meet with Congressman Bill Huizenga, State Sen. Roger Victory, emergency managers and environmental regulators.

“We are not waiting. We will do what we need to do to protect our home, and we will eventually get our permits. But I want to know if you are going to tell me that I cannot go forward and protect my home unless I have piece of paper from you,” said Stille, directing her question to Jerrod Sanders of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

The permitting process was one of the main complaints shared by property owners during Friday morning’s tour on North Shore Estates Drive in Spring Lake.

Homeowners are frustrated with the length of time it’s taking to obtain the permits required to build rock barriers.

Sanders, who’s the assistant director of EGLE’s Water Resources Division, said two-thirds of the permits that come in are being issued within seven days.

“We’re devoting every resource that we have towards getting these permits out,” Sanders said. “We’ve had staff working overtime, weekend, holidays, and we are kicking it out as fast as we possibly can.”

He also said he wanted to learn during the tour why some permits take longer so the agency can find ways to expedite them.

Sanders told Pam Stille that if a home is at imminent risk and the owner does not have a permit, EGLE has granted exceptions.

“In… individual cases, if you call in and you have a circumstance where your home is at risk, we have indeed said, ‘Go ahead, fix your home and come back,’” Sanders explained.

Realtor Sandi Gentry, who represents the couple whose home provided the backdrop for Friday’s tours, said the structure was nearly lost in part due to permit delays.

“My seller has been waiting over a year. He finally did get permitting to put in these rocks, but in the meantime, we’ve lost the stairs, the lower deck, the mid-deck,” Gentry said.

Other property owners pleaded for financial assistance.

“I’m sorry if people think we’re all rich snobs. We’re not. We’re just trying to save our homes,” said Deborah DeBruyn, who inherited the lakefront home her dad built in 1961. “I do not have deep money pockets. Many of us – these are our homes. They’ve been passed on from generation to generation. It’s everything my mom and dad ever made. How can I lose it?”

DeBruyn said she’s been praying that the state will help them.

“We have to have those (barrier) walls, and they’re horribly expensive. So, what do we do? My husband and I are both retired. We’re selling things,” she said.

U.S. Representative Bill Huizenga told the gathering that he’s looking into whether FEMA can provide lakeshore property owners with the kind of assistance the USDA offers farmers through crop insurance.

“We have not figured out how to do this yet,” Huizenga told the crowd. “But most of FEMA’s assistance is tied to a specific event. It’s more geared toward a tornado or a hurricane or an earthquake and not for an ongoing, lengthy thing like we have out here with Lake Michigan. Can we get FEMA a program that looks at it much like the USDA does with crop insurance or crop failure? Where it’s not one specific event, but it’s a series of events over a length of time that creates the situation?

Huizinga said the federal government doesn’t think that way or move very fast that way.

“So we’re having those discussions both in the House and the Senate and with the Army Corps of Engineers and others,” he said.

**Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled realtor Sandi Gentry’s first name. The spelling has been corrected. We regret the error.

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