2008-06-12 / Front Page

Land Use Choices Are Focus at Les Cheneaux

Public Ideas Sought on Boathouses, Setbacks
By Amy Polk

A boathouse in the Les Cheneaux Islands. (Photograph by Bob Dunn) A boathouse in the Les Cheneaux Islands. (Photograph by Bob Dunn) Clark Township seeks public opinion about boathouses, setbacks from water, signs, and rural lot sizes at a Tuesday, June 17 public hearing on the new Clark Township master plan and zoning ordinance. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. at the Community Center in Cedarville.

The township's hired land use planner, Brad Kaye of Gourdie Fraser in Traverse City, said the township's zoning ordinance and master plan have conflicting information about construction density in the rural zone, located mostly north of M-134. The master plan promotes low-density development, with houses on lots no smaller than 10 acres, while the zoning ordinance allows one-acre lots in the rural zone.

Boathouses and shoreline buffers have also been discussed at length at April and May planning workshops.

Getting the public's developmental interests to shake hands with environmental concerns is a balancing act, as demonstrated through ongoing discussion at workshops. Clark Township received most of its funding for the revisions from state Department of Environmental Quality and federal Clean Water Act grants, obligating the township to build more protection for water resources into zoning.

The 176 miles of Lake Huron shoreline in Clark Township and its 36 islands are considered one of the most appealing, yet most sensitive assets in the township. Biologists have called its marshes among the best in the Great Lakes basin, but they are the most vulnerable to development and pollution. Waterfront property is selling between $700 and $1,900 a foot, while road frontage is fetching between $100 and $200 a foot, according to the Mackinac County Equalization Department.

Discussion has centered on new landscaping, natural buffer, and shoreline preservation guidelines and a proposal to allow larger boathouses. Reaction so far has favored the more liberal boathouse guidelines, but not necessarily landscaping proposals that would require owners to maintain a plant buffer on waterfront lots, thus limiting their development options.

Clark Township now requires construction other than boathouses to be 100 feet back from the ordinary high water mark unless the lot elevation is more than three feet. If the lot rises more than three feet from the shore, development can start 35 feet from the high water mark.

Plants, Landscaping, Shoreline Buffers Can Help

Maintain Clean Water

The land use guidelines Mr. Kaye proposed recently satisfy water protection and aesthetic concerns by encouraging the use of more trees and plants along the water and around buildings, particularly commercial and industrial developments. The following guidelines are not yet adopted, but will be discussed Tuesday.

Clark Township's current zoning ordinance does not require landscaping or shoreline buffers, nor does it regulate the kind of landscaping or how much to use. The proposed regulations are specific for all proposals that come before the planning commission for site plan review, but does not apply to single-family and duplex residential developments.

"You can grant exceptions for any of these, of course," Mr. Kaye said.

Among the guidelines are the inclusion of native northern Michigan plants and that trees be substantial in size. When landscaping with trees, deciduous trees would be two inches in diameter at chest height, and coniferous trees would be at least six feet tall if the guidelines are adopted. Developers would have to place a performance bond or show receipts from the tree supplier to prove the required landscaping has been purchased. Such regulations would prevent developers from planting small, young trees that will have little screening, environmental, or beautification benefits until the trees are grown.

Regulations for berms and foundation plantings are also proposed. A foundation planting, Mr. Kaye said, is "anything that is effectively going to dress up a building."

A proposed buffer would require 50 feet around non-residential buildings allowed in a residential neighborhood. Ten-foot greenbelts will be required, and must include one tree and three shrubs for every 30 feet of lineal road frontage. Natural greenbelt already there (woods, understory scrub, native grasses, and wildflowers) are an alternative.

Two shoreline buffers have been presented by Mr. Kaye.

Option Arequires a 25-foot wide buffer be maintained along the shoreline of lakes, creeks, and tributaries. No more than 30% of the living trees and shrubs could be removed from the buffer zone, and the landowner could establish a 12- foot-wide path or boardwalk made of wood chips or stones.

Option B would require a managed buffer strip be maintained 100 feet from the shore. Clear cutting would be prohibited within 25 feet of the water's edge. From 25 to 50 feet from the water's edge, vegetation can be pruned for a filtered view of the water, and hiking trails, walking paths, and fences may be allowed under certain guidelines. From 75 to 100 feet, there would be no plant removal restrictions, but the area would be restricted to landscaping, play areas, and septic tank drain fields. Construction could not start until 100 feet from the shore, which would make it impossible to build on some lots, opponents of the proposal say. Supporters have said at meetings, however, that such guidelines could make the shoreline more attractive, rid the area of clearcutting to the water's edge, and protect the sensitive shoreline environment. Others think the township's current zoning provides adequate protection.

"If you don't like [either option] you can scrap it, but, surely, shoreline protection is a big issue here and you've got to do something to protect it," Mr. Kaye said.

Les Cheneaux Watershed Project Coordinator Pat Carr says everyone uses the watershed in Clark Township, so it would be prudent to protect the water. With no public water system, Clark Township residents and businesses use wells to draw groundwater. Many homes still have septic systems, and their contents eventually find their way into the water table.

"When it comes to the water, you don't own it," Mr. Carr said. "I understand property rights and I'm all for them, but I know I have a responsibility to my neighbors when I flush my toilet to not shoot everything into my neighbor's system."

Zoning Proposed for Clark Township Follows National

Trend Toward Shoreline


Mr. Kaye says vegetative buffers filter pollution, retard runoff, harbor wildlife, and preserve scenic beauty.

In more populated places like Traverse City, where developers have cut to the shore, residents have learned from their mistakes. The shoreline protection guidelines proposed for Clark Township are similar to guidelines described in the New Designs for Growth Development Guidebook, developed by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. The development guidebook is considered a national model for land use design and "represents some of the best development practices in Michigan," said Robert Bach, a 40- year planning and design expert who was on the design review committee for the guidebook.

"When the book was written, we had a cross-section of the community work on this," Mr. Bach said. "It reflects the desires of the community."

Shoreline property is called "one of our area's most cherished assets" in the guidebook. Residents there regard it as crucial to the area's natural character and economic base, he said, and it is valued for water quality, scenery, habitat, and recreational opportunities.

Unlike Clark Township, Grand Traverse area residents do not favor boathouses and development close to the water, Mr. Bach said. Grand Traverse residents are mainly concerned about urban sprawl, maintaining agricultural features, and encouraging development in a way that preserves natural resources. He has sailed in the Les Cheneaux Islands, however, and said he understands Clark Township's interest in boathouses, as they were historically used to shelter the area's many wooden boats, which need more protection than Fiberglas or aluminum vessels.

He encouraged planners to have guidelines crafted around what the community wants on its waterfront in the future. Buildings fall down. Farmland can revert back to forest. Docks can get torn out. Waterfront buildings can get razed, he said, citing the recent demolition of the Traverse City Light and Power plant on the city's waterfront, which opened up new development and landscaping opportunities.

In the City of Marquette, city leaders purchased an old railroad yard and created a park, paths, and community buildings, thereby creating more public access to the water.

"What's there now isn't necessarily what it's going to be 20 years from now," Mr. Bach said.

Larger Boathouses Favored by Clark Township Residents;

Opposed by DEQ

Planning officials here generally favor keeping boathouse approval a planning commission function. All boathouses larger than 600 square feet in size now need a special land use permit from the planning commission, and almost all have been approved since 2002, when the ordinance was adopted.

Zoning Officer Frank Sims estimates Clark Township receives no more than 10 boathouse construction applications a year. Most meet the size guidelines, neighbors rarely object, and commissioners may place some stipulations on the boathouse to bring it in line with zoning. If the boathouse exceeds size guidelines, it goes to the Zoning Board of Appeals for a variance.

Joe Eger, a member of the planning commission and zoning board of appeals, said the process is cumbersome and overburdens the ZBA with a growing number of hearings. The proposed boathouse ordinance contains 28 construction and architectural guidelines and would allow structures to be as wide as 38% of the lot's lake frontage. If a lot has 50 feet of frontage, the boathouse could be a maximum of 19 feet wide and 15 feet tall, with 10-foot setbacks. With 100 feet of frontage, the boathouse could be a maximum of 38 feet wide and 18 feet tall, with 20-foot setbacks.

The state restricts the length of the boathouse, since it reviews all boathouses for interference with navigable waters.

Tom Graf of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said the agency's responsibility is to minimize the intrusion of structures into the Great Lakes.

"We try to manage the lakes for boat usage only," he said.

Second stories over boathouses are discouraged, he added, because apartments and storage are considered uses more appropriate on land than over the water.

"When you think about it, boathouses are really garages for boats on the lakes," Mr. Graf said, adding that any other use for a boathouse, such as living quarters, does not necessarily need to be over the water. "We've been trying to allow water-dependent uses only, over the water, and we've been trying to minimize those uses for many years."

Boathouse requests must go through the public process of review and hearings, Mr. Graf said, because bodies of water are part of the public trust.

"Our responsibility is to monitor construction on the Great Lakes, and what we're looking at in terms of boathouses is to limit their size to 1,000 square feet or less," Mr. Graf said.

Clark Township residents still want larger boathouses, however, and commissioners and Mr. Kaye concluded the draft ordinance needs only a few changes before it is presented to the public again. Some of the changes include cutting down the number of construction guidelines and introducing some length guidelines. Some people at workshops leading up to the June 17 event worried that limitless lengths could encourage abuse.

Supervisor Linda Hudson, who helped write the current boathouse ordinance, said the special land use permit requirement was built into the ordinance to give oversight to the planning commission.

"Some sizes would be appropriate in some places, and other places, not so much," she said. "It depends on the neighborhood, or lack of neighborhood in a more isolated area. You don't have a God-given right to develop in front of your house. You have to take into account input from your neighbors. The special land use criteria are because of the potential impact on neighbors and to consider design criteria."

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