ST. JOSEPH — Some St. Joseph residents along Lake Michigan are asking for immediate permission to put down boulders to protect their property from erosion, before waves wash away what is left – without initially signing an agreement with the city.

City officials don’t want to get in over their heads with possible legal liability if they don’t have something in black and white.

“You don’t have good choices, and we don’t have good choices,” Commissioner Jeff Richards said Monday during a debate on what to do about encroaching water along Lions Park Drive.

A letter from Jack Thornburg, of 204 Park St., said that he has seen 30 to 40 feet of their dunes eroded since November 2017, with 15 to 20 feet – half of what has been lost – gone since Sept. 30 of this year.

Thornburg said he, his neighbor, Jack Sanderson, of 804 Lake Lane, and others are worried about what the “gales of November” will do, and want to have armor stone installed this week along the city’s lakeside right-of-way.

Sanderson said that, at one point, there is only three feet left between the edge of the bluff and the property line.

With a winter storm howling outside, “tomorrow I expect there will be nothing left,” he said.

Contractors are working on adjacent properties and are available to do the work right now, the residents said. Abonmarche has declared the erosion “an immediate threat” to their properties, and engineers point out that protections would be more effective if constructed the length of the beach.

If they don’t do it now, they will have to wait until spring, Sanderson said. “By then it might be too late.”

Last month city commissioners approved a license agreement that would give affected property owners permission to seek city, state and federal permits to put temporary shoreline protections on public land. So far, three residents have signed the agreement.

Thornburg and Sanderson, who were both out of state when the meetings to discuss the agreement were held, believe that certain aspects don’t hold water.

For example, they said that the provision requiring that they remove the temporary structures by Nov. 1, 2020, while a permanent plan is considered, is “pointless.”

City Attorney Laurie Schmidt said the request from residents was for a temporary solution, and she recommended that they stick with the agreements as drafted.

The rocks could become part of a permanent solution and might not have to be removed, she said.

Without an agreement “we’re being asked to leave the city exposed to litigation,” Commissioner Lynn Todman.

“For two weeks,” Sanderson said, until an amended agreement can be reached.

The residents said they wanted to negotiate a license agreement that is specific to each site, but they don’t have time to wait to put in protections. Sanderson said the situation at every property is different, and a blanket agreement isn’t a one-size-fits-all.

It costs around $50,000 to place the rocks, and even more to remove them, according to Sanderson.

The Michigan Department of Energy, the Great Lakes and the Environment and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have said that they are trying to speed up the approval process for the large number of permits they are receiving. 

Sanderson said he was told by state and federal officials that residents don’t need a green light from them, and only require the city’s approval.

City Engineer Tim Zebell, who has experience with coastal issues, said he has seen these kind of boulders thrown onto neighboring properties by waves. What is being considered is a bit haphazard, he added.

“You’re just throwing stones on the beach and hoping it works,” instead of using materials that would make the structure last, Zebell said.

Sanderson said he couldn’t understand why the city was rejecting an offer to protect something they have neglected for 40 years.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak