SHAES red beach flag photo

A beach flag attendant for South Haven Area Emergency Services raises a red flag at South Haven's South Beach this past summer to warn swimmers of dangerous conditions on Lake Michigan.

People who swim in Lake Michigan along South haven beaches during hazardous weather conditions could soon be fined for doing so.

City council members have introduced an ordinance that prohibits people from swimming in Lake Michigan and walking along the North and South Pier when they are closed due to inclement weather or other hazardous water conditions. Doing so will constitute a civil infraction and result in a fine up to $1,000.

The proposed ordinance, introduced at the city council meeting Monday, comes on the heels of a Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ decision earlier this year to fine people up to $500 for entering into Lake Michigan at state parks during red flag conditions.

The only exception would be for board sport recreational enthusiasts, such as kite boarders, who go into Lake Michigan to surf when waves are high.

The city’s proposed ordinance also involves installation of gates on the South and North piers that would be closed to foot traffic during hazardous weather conditions. The gates would be similar to ones installed this year at Holland State Park to prevent people from accessing the piers.

City council members have examined ways to improve water and pier safety at city beaches following record high water levels in 2020, which led to three drownings. Shortly afterward, the city set up a beach safety committee to find ways to reduce drowning or near-drowning incidents in waters near North and South beaches and piers.

“This (water safety) is an extremely important topic,” Mayor Scott Smith said.

Implementation of the proposed ordinance would work in the following way:

The city manager, police chief, harbor master or South Haven Area Emergency Services Authority can close or partially close city beaches due to a human health and safety risk. These risks include contamination, unsafe debris washing ashore, rescue/recovery efforts, severe weather events identified by the National Weather Service, or when waves exceed 8 feet.

When a closure is ordered, signs shall be posted around the closed areas indicating that swimming is prohibited.

The same entities have the authority to close the two piers during strong wind conditions that cause one-third of the waves to wash over the top of the structures. In addition, people who dive or jump off the North or South piers, swim within 50 feet of the piers, or push, shove or cause a person to fall off the piers into Lake Michigan or the Black River Channel can be fined.

Because a violation would be considered a civil infraction, fines could be assessed by law enforcement officers or code enforcement officers.

However, even though the proposed ordinance contains provisions for instituting fines, an amount has not been set yet.

“The amount of the fine could be set at higher levels than typical civil infractions, which typically start at $50,” City Manager Kate Hosier told council members. “However, other civil infractions, such as illegal use of fireworks, are set at $1,000 for the first offense ... We can default to a standard fine, but go as high as $1,000. I’m looking for a recommendation on what price tag you’d like to put.”

Several council members think the fine for violators should be stiff.

“I would argue to go as high as we can go,” Smith said. “We don’t want people to drown.”

With the ordinance being introduced, city council will schedule a public hearing for citizen comments, and take action whether to approve or make changes to the proposed ordinance.