South Haven officials will now issue a hefty fine to beachgoers who venture into Lake Michigan or walk along the piers during inclement weather.
City council members approved a new beach closure and pier barrier ordinance this past Monday, which imposes a $1,000 fee for violators who enter into the waters of Lake Michigan from city beaches or walk out onto the piers when they are closed.
Additionally, people who dive or jump from the pier, swim within 50 feet of the piers, or who cause a person to fall or jump from the piers into Lake Michigan or the Black River could face the same penalty.
Council members unanimously approved the ordinance Monday after conducting a public hearing.
“Adoption of this ordinance establishes a process for closing the city beaches and piers due to inclement weather,” City Manager Kate Hosier said. “This ordinance is a result of one-and-a-half years of work for setting the criteria for closing the beaches.”
The ordinance is modeled on a similar one adopted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in the fall of 2021, which prohibits swimming at state parks during inclement weather conditions. Sports board enthusiasts would be the only people to be exempt from swimming during inclement weather in both the city and DNR regulations.
But, unlike the DNR order, which imposes a $500 fine for violators, the city plans to double the fee.
“That reflects the severity of violating the ordinance,” Hosier said. “Based on feedback from the city council at the Dec. 20, 2021 meeting, the fine for violating the ordinance has been set at $1,000 per occurrence.”
In addition, Hosier said violators who are rescued from the water by first responders could face more expenses related to rescue efforts.
The ordinance would be administered in the following way:
Either the city manager, police chief, harbormaster or director of South Haven Area Emergency Services will have the authority to close or partially close public beach waters due to a human health and safety risk, including contamination, unsafe debris washing ashore, rescue/recovery efforts, severe weather identified by the National Weather Service, or wave heights in excess of 8 feet. Those same individuals can also close piers due to wind conditions on Lake Michigan that result in one-third of the waves washing over the piers.
When a swimming closure is ordered, signs will be posted around the closed areas indicating that swimming is prohibited. In the case of a pier closure, the entrance to the pier will be barricaded with a gate, and a sign will be posted.
Because violation of the ordinance is considered a civil infraction, violators can be cited by either police or code enforcement officers.
An additional provision of the ordinance allows the city to obtain permission from the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the piers, to install barrier railings at the entrance to each pier at a cost of about $20,000.
During the public hearing, several people questioned whether the ordinance can be effectively administered.
“If we remain ‘swim at your own risk’ at the city beaches, are we certain we can enforce this ordinance?” said South Haven resident Kam Daugherty. “If conditions change while swimmers are in the water, I do not believe we can enforce removal of them. I don’t think (the) city has jurisdiction to do so.”
Another resident questioned the dollar amount of the fine.
“I think $1,000 is a bit excessive,” said Mary Hosley. “The fines will not deter people because they most likely won’t know of the fines. They don’t know the dangers of the lake and piers. The constant changes in the lake causes problems. The most critical aspect seems to be educating people.”
Council members admitted a learning process will be involved in enforcement of the ordinance and that efforts to educate swimmers about dangerous water conditions in Lake Michigan must continue. Those efforts were stepped up in the late summer of 2020, following three drowning deaths off Lake Michigan beaches.
“This past summer, we did not have drownings and more importantly, no calls for drownings,” Hosier said. “I believe it was due to more education, Nixle (emergency text) alerts and SHAES having more people out at the beach ... This is just one more thing we’re trying to do.”
She said the city will consider adding another code enforcement officer to monitor beach activity.
Council member George Sleeper said the new ordinance will complement efforts the city council has undertaken to improve beach safety. Among these efforts included the formation of a beach safety committee, which analyzed ways the city could make its beaches safer for water-related activities.
“I do think the ordinance is the first step,” he said. “Education is the next step to make sure we have a safe summer next year.”