April 23, 2024

Dredging in Paradise

Controversy brews around a proposed waterfront property on Lake Charlevoix
By Craig Manning | April 30, 2022

Who owns the lakeshore?

That question is at the heart of a contentious debate in Hayes Township that could have huge implications for the future of Lake Charlevoix. On one side of the debate, you’ll find local residents, watershed protectors, and environmental advocates. On the other side, a private property rights claim and a wealthy family that has accumulated a large section of land near the lake. Somewhere in the middle are local officials and the pair of state and federal entities entrusted with deciding when and where shoreline development is allowed.

With so many voices in the conversation, it’s perhaps no surprise that the battle over Lake Charlevoix’s shoreline has escalated into a loud, convoluted mess—one tinged with everything from class warfare to accusations of government corruption and impropriety.

The Setup
The dispute stems from a zoning permit application submitted to the township in November 2019 concerning the lakefront property of Scott and Debra Law, located at 10034 Anglers Cove in Charlevoix, and detailed plans to build a boathouse and a private basin.

The Laws, from Carmel, Indiana, began buying up property near Lake Charlevoix several years ago. Scott Law is the founder and CEO of Zotec Partners, a medical billing software company established in 1998. The Laws have been described by local officials as “multimillionaires.”

Per the 2019 zoning application, the Laws want to build their boathouse 130 feet inland from Lake Charlevoix, but also wish to dredge the shoreline to create a 73-foot-wide channel from the lake to the boathouse. The design includes a garage-like structure on the bottom floor where the Laws or guests could dock and store large boats after returning from boating on Lake Charlevoix.

The Hayes Township Planning Commission approved the application in 2019, and a zoning permit was officially issued in July 2020 for the boathouse portion of the project. The basin, meanwhile, required additional permits from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the United States Army Corps of Engineers, both of which must be consulted about developing or modifying the Great Lakes shoreline. Because Lake Charlevoix connects to Lake Michigan, it qualifies as part of the Great Lakes and is therefore under the jurisdiction of both EGLE and the Army Corps.

EGLE approved the Laws’ permit request in December 2020. The Army Corps permit is still pending.

Troubled Waters
For more than a year, there was virtually no local conversation around the Laws’ dredging proposal, let alone a public outcry.

Then, last August, a website called “Protect Lake Charlevoix’s Shoreland Strip” popped up, kicking off a lively campaign driven by local residents who have now spent months protesting the project. At the head of the movement is LuAnne Kozma, a property owner with land not far from the Laws’ compound. In the past several months, Kozma has filed multiple lawsuits against the township concerning the Law property, most of them alleging lack of transparency and other improprieties.

An absence of transparency, Kozma says, is the reason that the dredging and development plans didn’t ignite public pushback sooner, though she also notes that she and her neighbors have had problems with the Laws since the start.

Kozma says the Laws bought a “mansion” near Lake Charlevoix in 2018, along with some 400 acres of land around the house and along the nearby waterfront. According to Kozma, conflict brewed between the new owners and their neighbors early on, including numerous instances where the Laws threw big, lavish parties or corporate retreats at their home. Those parties, Kozma says, came with “big jumbotron” lights and loud music that could be seen and heard around the lake. Those issues eventually prompted Kozma to lodge “some official complaints” with the township. They wouldn’t be her last.

“We didn’t know at first that this boathouse thing was being planned,” Kozma tells Northern Express. “We ended up finding out by accident because I happened to call the county building department last summer to ask whether I needed a permit to put skirting under my house. And the building department guy said, ‘Oh, so you live near where that new marina is going to go in?’ And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”

The “marina” in question was the boathouse that the Laws had already sought township approvals to build. Learning about that proposed project sent Kozma to Township Zoning Administrator Ron Van Zee for an explanation as to why she and her neighbors hadn’t been notified about a potential development along the shoreline. Van Zee, she claims, was less than forthcoming—to the point where she eventually submitted FOIA requests to get the details about the project and see the proposed plans.

The Grievances
Today, Kozma and her fellow neighbors have three primary concerns about the Law property and the recent proposal.

First, they see the Laws’ dredging plan as a clear violation of the township’s shoreland protection ordinance. That ordinance creates a “shoreland protection strip” applicable to all Lake Charlevoix shorelines within Hayes Township. Under the ordinance, waterfront property owners are heavily restricted in what they can do within the shoreland protection strip, which extends 50 feet inland from the shore’s “ordinary high water mark.”

For instance, the ordinance bans most structures in the strip, beyond docks and retaining walls. Using pesticides, storing or burning grass clippings and leaves, installing concrete or asphalt surfaces, and removing vegetation or root systems from old trees are all also banned or heavily restricted within the protection strip.

Second, the neighbors argue that the Laws’ boathouse would be a violation of zoning. They contend that the proposed structure, though tagged as a residential project, is effectively a commercial event center and dining facility, complete with a commercial kitchen, six bathrooms, and enough space “to hold 700 people standing up or 350 people sitting around tables.”

Third, Kozma and her fellow residents have accused local township officials of handling the matter in unethical and potentially even illegal ways. Those allegations span everything from violations of public transparency laws to infringements of the township’s shoreland protection strip ordinance.

For instance, the shoreland protection ordinance requires the township to have a “Shoreland Protection Committee.” One member of that committee is supposed to be a representative from a third-party group that has “technical expertise in aquatic ecosystem management.” In the case of Hayes Township, that requirement means the committee is supposed to involve the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, which is charged with protecting the water resources of Antrim, Charlevoix, Cheboygan, and Emmet counties. In October 2019, the Shoreland Protection Committee met at the Law property for a site review, ahead of the township’s ultimate approval of the Laws’ zoning permit application. No Tip of the Mitt representative was present at that review, which Kozma views as a violation of the ordinance.

Tip of the Mitt, for its part, has gone on record in opposition to the Laws’ plans, with letters sent to both EGLE and the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Creation of artificial channels to Lake Charlevoix, as well as construction of a boat basin, will have significant adverse impacts upon the water quality and aquatic habitat and species of Lake Charlevoix,” Tip of the Mitt Policy Director Jennifer McKay wrote in a letter to EGLE dated September 20, 2020.

McKay noted a long list of potential risks posed by the project, including release of toxic materials from dredging or from the treated lumber likely to be used in the boathouse construction; negative impacts on aquatic ecosystems and food chains in Lake Charlevoix; and the possibility of other property owners on Lake Charlevoix attempting similarly damaging projects if this one was allowed to go forward.

The Rebuttal
Van Zee believes local residents have made him out to be the villain without caring to recognize some of the nuances surrounding the Law property.

To the accusation that the township is actively working against its own ordinance—and that a decision on this particular property would set precedent that could ultimately weaken the shoreland protection strip safeguard—Van Zee points out that local officials won’t actually have the last word on that subject. While the township approved the Laws’ zoning permit application for the boathouse, Van Zee is quick to make the distinction that the approval did not include any consent for actual lakeshore dredging. That approval rests solely with EGLE and the Army Corps.

“[Shoreline dredging] is outside of our jurisdiction,” Van Zee tells the Express. “So, if the Laws were to start excavating based on the permits they were previously granted, that violates our ordinance and I have to issue a stop-work order. The township doesn’t have the authority to allow them to dig the basin. So, if the Army Corps turns them down [for the federal shoreline permit], my guess is they will probably drop the whole thing.”

To the accusation that the Laws’ boathouse property shouldn’t have been approved in the first place because it constitutes a commercial use, Van Zee argues that there’s a difference between a large private property where the owner wants to host a large number of guests and a commercial event center that could be rented for weddings or other functions.

“It’s all private,” Van Zee says of the Laws’ plans for their property. “They do have a lot of people from their corporation that come up, and that’s why they built three lodges. But it’s just a private retreat area. They don’t charge for anything, and they are not open to the public. It’s just a larger scale of private use than what their neighbors might have. And as long as [the use of the property] meets the ordinance requirements, there’s not a lot we can do it. If it did actually become commercial—like if the Laws’ wanted to make a hotel, or a bed and breakfast, or something like that, and they started charging people to be there—obviously, they would then have to come back before planning commission to do that.”

Finally, to the accusation that he and other Hayes Township officials have acted improperly or failed to observe proper public transparency, Van Zee admits that he’s made a few mistakes since the Laws’ proposal initially came through but insists those errors have been minor.

For instance, Van Zee says he “made a mistake in the letter I wrote to the Laws” when the boathouse project was first approved in 2019. That letter, he says, may have given the false impression that the township was approving the basin part of the project. The planning commission had discussed the possible eventuality of a basin and a channel when discussing whether or not to approve the boathouse plan, and Van Zee touched upon those conversations in his letter to the Laws. In retrospect, he realizes this may have been confusing to locals.

“But I wasn’t giving [the Laws] permission to go ahead with the basin,” Van Zee insists. “And they couldn’t do it anyway, because they hadn’t even gone to EGLE yet. So, that was just a little mistake on my part, but that’s what the other side hangs their hat on.”

The Calm Before the Storm?
Despite ongoing skirmishes between Hayes Township and the locals fighting against the Law property development, the issue, for now, is mostly just hanging in limbo. All eyes are now on the Army Corps of Engineers to see whether the Laws get approval to dredge the shoreline.

In the meantime, the permits and approval the Laws got from the township in 2019 and 2020 have all expired, which means the family will have to reapply with the township to get the boathouse part of the development approved again—even if the Army Corps rubber-stamps the dredging.

It remains to be seen how long the people of Charlevoix will wait for a final answer. Emily Schaefer, a public affairs specialist with the Detroit district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, confirms to the Express that the Laws’ permit application “is pending, and we are still completing our evaluation.” That review, she assures, will “consider the project’s potential to adversely affect the aquatic ecosystem, the extent those effects are avoided and minimized, and whether practicable alternatives available would reduce adverse effects while still accomplishing the project purpose.” She also notes that the Army Corps considers the opinions of interest groups (such as Tip of the Mitt) and of the general public when making permitting decisions.

“The results of our reviews are fair and equitable decisions that allow reasonable use of private property, infrastructure development, and economic growth, while offsetting the authorized impacts to United States waters,” Schaefer concludes.

Of course, local Charlevoix citizens have reason to be skeptical about the ability of EGLE or the Army Corps to protect their waters. The Laws are not the first to seek permit approval for significant dredging of Lake Charlevoix, and they wouldn’t be the first to get that approval. In 2012, EGLE and the Army Corps permitted the DeVos family to dredge a private boat access and basin near their summer home and to create an artificial “island” out of the excavated land.

For Kozma, what’s at stake is nothing less than the sanctity of Lake Charlevoix, and of public riparian rights in general. If the Laws are allowed to dredge the lake, she says, it will set a precedent that weakens the township’s shoreland protection ordinance and sends the message that private property owners can do whatever they please with public water resources—so long as they have enough money and influence.

“It will be such a serious blow to the entire shoreland, not just on Lake Charlevoix but on Lake Michigan as a whole,” Kozma says. “This decision would basically nullify the entire effect of the shoreland protection strip, because why should anyone else need to repair their shoreland, or replant native plants, or protect root systems? If this guy can excavate his shoreland and haul it away in 1,000 trucks, why should I have to protect my shoreland?”

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