How close is too close to the water?

The home at 396 Ridgeway Drive in St. Joseph sits closer to Lake Michigan than any other houses along the immediate shoreline. Erin Stubblefield / H-P staff

ST. JOSEPH - Engineers are recommending that St. Joseph officials draw a line in the sand where houses can be built along the shoreline between Tiscornia Park and the city's northern boundary.

That line should be between 130 and 180 feet from the ordinary high-water mark, according to a draft report presented to city commissioners from Abonmarche and Edgewater Resources. The ordinary high-water mark is an elevation where water can be expected to reach, and is usually distinguished by a line where vegetation grows undisturbed by waves.

The city has no rules now governing how far a structure needs to be from the high-water mark.

For engineers, that mark is arrived at by looking at historical data on water levels and the effects of waves and storm surges, said Michael Morphey, with Edgewater.

In their recommended distance the engineers included a 50-foot safety margin, recognizing "the severe consequences of building too close to water on Lake Michigan" and the constantly changing shoreline, Morphey said.

"Living on the lake is very, very risky," said Ron Schults, president of Edgewater Resources.

And seawalls built to deflect that risk can do irreparable damage to the shoreline, the engineers warned.

The best way to avoid that damage is with a proper setback, Commissioner Jeff Richards said. "We're trying to stay even with Mother Nature and God, instead of one step behind."

The draft report, without the setback recommendations, was presented to the city's Planning Commission earlier this month.

City commissioners voted to forward it back to the Planning Commission for further discussion. A final report is expected in July.

The study also looked at areas from the South Pier to the city's southern boundary but did not recommend any building setbacks along that stretch.

The seawall request

The purpose of the shoreline study, initiated by the city and paid for through private donations, was to preserve the public right-of-way along the beach and protect private property, Morphey said.

The study was prompted by a request for a seawall to protect a house at 396 Ridgeway that sits close to the water.

Neighbors complained that a seawall would make erosion worse for adjacent properties and would block the beach when the water is high.

The request for the seawall was withdrawn, but officials decided a shoreline survey was needed. They also put in place six-month moratoriums on the construction of seawalls and other structures to allow the study to take place.

Community Development Director John Hodgson noted that those moratoriums expire at the end of July.

Hodgson said the Planning Commission is likely to discuss the final report at its July 12 meeting and will probably want to set a public hearing in August. A recommendation could come back to city commissioners as early as their Aug. 6 meeting, and an ordinance could be in effect by Aug. 30.

The Planning Commission had proposed a zoning ordinance with a 200-foot no-build zone from the high water mark. That 200-foot figure was a "place holder" until the engineering study could be done, Hodgson explained.

In their draft report, engineers suggested that the setback be revisited periodically to adjust to changing conditions.

Some residents disagreed about how rigid a setback line should be.

Glenn Zerler, of 548 Ridgeway, argued that the setback line should never be moved closer to the lake's edge because of possible high water in the future.

Judy Kinney, of 340 Ridgeway, countered that the city needs to have a movable line because sand accumulates and the beach grows on the south side of the St. Joseph River.

Residents should have the right to build on their own property, she maintained.

Kinney also asked about the extent of the so-called "public trust," which allows anyone to walk along the shore. She said a couple walking along the beach decided to get amorous well within sight of her porch recently.

Mark Miller, who is a Ridgeway resident and lawyer, said a Michigan Supreme Court ruling gives the public the right to walk between the water and the vegetation line.

But that doesn't mean they can set up housekeeping or whatever else they have in mind, he added. "It's a way of passage, not a way of sitting."