Objective: To illustrate how science, in conjunction with public engagement, can effectively generate support for the passage of new zoning ordinances when designed to protect public and private interests from cyclical changes in lake levels and related coastal hazards.
Authors: Bridget Faust, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Publication Date: December 14, 2013
Update Note: April, 2016 - In the three years since the City of St. Joseph, MI adopted a "no-build" zoning ordinance requiring approximately a 200-foot building set-back from the water's edge, the average water level for Lake Michigan has risen more than 3 feet. Given this dramatic change, questions arise as to how effective the ordinance has been in regard to proposed new and existing structures near the shore?
The answer to those questions from the St. Joseph city manager and the engineering company that produced the scientific study forming the basis for the ordinance is that it's too early to tell. It is too early to tell because a detailed follow-up study analyzing current water and shore conditions has not been undertaken yet. However, the city has submitted a grant application this year through the NOAA Office for Coastal Management with the purpose of replicating and validating in 2017 the analysis undertaken five years ago.
The topography of the shoreline has changed due to the 3 foot water level increase. Measuring and understanding those changes and whether those changes will require subsequent alterations to the ordinance is a major question to be answered. To what extent the ordinance has stopped potential construction over the past three years in the 200-foot set- back zone from the water's edge is unknown. When the planned 2017 study is completed and analyzed the city will have a more complete understanding of the changes due to rising water levels and the economic impact of the set-back ordinance.
The City of St. Joseph is located on the southeastern shore of Lake Michigan, approximately 50 miles west of Kalamazoo, Michigan ("City of St. Joseph"). In January 2012, the city received an application for a permit to build a large seawall – intended to protect the applicant's property from the waters of Lake Michigan. The home had been built only two years before, in compliance with all state, federal and local regulations. This request was a first for city managers, who felt fortunate that other homeowners along the shore had not yet faced the same threat posed by Lake Michigan's waters (Morphey Interview, 2013). Although the shoreline in question is more typically subject to accretion, sustained strong winds out of the northwest put this area at risk for extreme storm surges due to the 150-mile distance over which waves traverse the lake before reaching the shore. This distance is frequently referred to as the wave fetch (Edgewater, 2012).
Adjacent property owners and the surrounding community raised objections based on concerns that the proposed seawall would aggravate erosion along the beach and limit public access to the shoreline. As a result, private donors with the support of the City Commission funded an engineering study to evaluate the potential impacts of construction near the lakeshore ("A Line in the Sand"). After analyzing nearly 100 years' worth of data on Lake Michigan water levels and extreme weather events, the consulting engineers recommended that the City of St. Joseph implement a fixed setback line for a portion of the shoreline, lakeward of which property owners could not build permanent structures along the beach (Edgewater, 2012).
The proposed setback was met with mixed reactions from the community ("How Close is too Close to the Water?"). After multiple public engagement meetings between the City Commission, Planning Commission, the general public and engineering firm representatives, a general consensus was reached about the necessity of the proposed setback line (Morphey Interview, 2013). In the fall of 2012, the St. Joseph City Commission passed a "no-build" zoning ordinance that, in accordance with the consulting engineers' recommendations, prohibits the construction of permanent structures at a fixed elevation above sea level, which intersects with the shoreline approximately 200 feet from the water's edge ("No More Mistakes Along the Lake"). The recommended elevation was determined by adding a two-foot storm surge and a 50-year wave run up to Lake Michigan's record high water level (Edgewater, 2012).
The purpose of this case study is to illustrate how sound science, in conjunction with public participation, was effectively used during the public engagement process to improve public awareness of coastal hazards and ultimately, generate support for a zoning ordinance that was designed to preserve public trust lands and protect both public safety and private property along the shore into perpetuity. The concepts that require explanation and some best practices for illustrating them when discussing a zoning ordinance of this nature are described further in the following sections.
The Great Lakes are subject to long-term, cyclical changes in water levels that influence the severity of the hazards associated with living along their shores (Edgewater, 2012). Coastal property owners' awareness of these hazards tends to come and go with their appearance, heightening in times of high waters or after severe events and diminishing as water levels and weather return to what is perceived as normal. ("A Resource Guide for Great Lakes Coastal Hazards in Wisconsin"). Taken together, the cyclical nature of hazard awareness and Great Lakes water levels can entice beachfront property owners to build too close to the water's edge, unknowingly putting themselves and their property in harm's way (Morphey Interview, 2013).
By understanding the cyclical nature of Great Lakes water levels, coastal processes and the threats associated with building along the coast, as well as the concept of zoning and its origins and limitations, we can evaluate how zoning can be used to preserve the quality of public and private property in these areas. The definitions below explain these things.
Zoning by its most basic definition refers to a local government's or a state's ability to divide a municipality into districts and regulate the types of activities that can occur and the densities of buildings and other structures that can be constructed within them. Zoning is a useful tool for protecting sensitive resources, planning and organizing new development, and driving slow, incremental changes in city structure and form (Daniels & Daniels, 2003). Read more...
Public Trust Doctrine
The Public Trust Doctrine originates from the centuries-old Roman law and English common law and has been developed through case law in the United States. The doctrine maintains that states are obligated to protect the public's access to certain state-owned resources for their use and enjoyment, a responsibility that they cannot abdicate. The Public Trust Doctrine applies to navigable waters like oceans and the Great Lakes, as well as freshwater rivers, lakes, streams and ponds. In accordance with the precedent set by the Michigan Supreme Court, the State of Michigan has a duty to protect the public's access, recreational use, and enjoyment of all lands at or below the "ordinary high water mark" along Lake Michigan's shore (Norton et al., 2011).
Ordinary High Water Mark
Orindary High Water Mark Graphic from Minnesota Shoreland Resource Guide
The term ordinary high water mark (OHWM) refers to the location at which a discernible line on the shore is established by repeated fluctuations of water, and is indicated by physical characteristics like erosion, destruction of terrestrial vegetation, presence of litter or debris, or changes in soil characteristics ("Ordinary High Water Mark"). This boundary is sometimes used by Great Lakes states to precisely determine the spatial extent to which the public trust lands extend shoreward (Norton et al., 2011). In the Great Lakes region, two definitions of this boundary are typically utilized, the "actual" or "natural" ordinary high water mark (NOHWM) as shown by the physical evidence described above, and the "statutory" or "elevation" based ordinary high water mark which is set by state statute and not directly related to the NOHWM.
Since 1860, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has consistently monitored and recorded the water levels of the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes undergo seasonal, short term, and long term water level fluctuations to various degrees. Since 1999, Lake Michigan has experienced sustained below-average water levels. However, if previous trends are indicative of the future, these levels are expected to return to average or above-average (Edgewater, 2012). Read more...
Pictured Below: The St. Joseph, Michigan shoreline seen during high and low water periods. Images taken from U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Detroit District
Beach at High Water
Beach at Low Water
Coastal storms frequently pass through the Great Lakes region, in some cases with hurricane-force winds. These storms can cause hazardous storm surge and waves. Sustained strong winds out of the northwest can cause storm surges greater than three feet and nearshore waves in excess of 10 feet high, or even generate seiches on the shoreline of the City of St. Joseph (Edgewater, 2012). Read more...
Bulkhead Erosion Graphic from U.S. ACE
Coastal erosion in the Great Lakes is a product of storm waves, instability in slope soils, surface water runoff and other natural factors. Coastal erosion can also be aggravated by the construction of shoreline protection structures, such as bulk heads and seawalls (pictured right). (Edgewater, 2012). When shoreline protection structures are constructed parallel to the water's edge, they reflect and amplify the energy from impacting waves. This reflected energy can force sand at the base of the structure to be lifted into the water column and carried away, thus increasing the rate of erosion. These structures also have to potential to interrupt the regular movement of sediments by creating a physical boundary behind which they are ultimately retained. In the long term the construction of these structures can also have significant impacts on longshore transport regimes, causing unnatural erosion and deposition on downshore properties and sand starvation of downdrift beaches ("Beach Nourishment: A Guide for Local Government Officials"). Read more...
Forged out of an acknowledgement of the importance of the general public's attitudes, perceptions and beliefs, public participation has become an integral part of successful policy development and implementation in the United States. All individuals have a stake in the management of natural resources and the benefits they produce. While not all governance and decision-making related to natural resources needs to incorporate a public involvement process, when dealing with the development of new regulations, zoning ordinances, and other potentially controversial policies, public engagement can help foster a community's acceptance and deepen its understanding of the proposed policy. As a result, effective public engagement has the potential to prevent conflict and ease the implementation process of a new policy or regulation ("Introduction to Public Participation").
Through analysis of the public engagement process used in St. Joseph, Michigan, four best practices can be drawn.
1. Craft resilience strategies for natural resources when the public expresses concern, awareness and knowledge of value.
In the City of St. Joseph, members of the community proactively put the issue of shoreline development on the city's political agenda (read more about the local story...). Their interest in maintaining their connection to the public trust lakebed along the shore and in protecting private developments drove them to voice their concerns to the City Commission and triggered the ensuing discussion about how to make the shoreline more resilient ("A Line in the Sand").
2. Engage in joint problem definition and fact-finding to build trust and promote informed decision-making.
Prior to making any decisions about how to make a community resource more resilient, it is imperative to consult with experts who can evaluate and propose alternatives based on risk, cost and effectiveness (Keillor, 2003). In the City of St. Joseph, both the City Commission and active citizenry recognized this need and approached the fact-finding process together. The community and the City Commission worked together to define the problem, select the engineering firms they wished to have evaluate it, and complete the study. This cooperation eased the completion of a study that was grounded in sound science and that could be trusted as a legitimate and authoritative source of information by the City Commission and general public alike (Ozawa, 1996).
For additional guidance on where to find certified consultants and engineering firms in your area and how to work with them effectively, the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute has written a four-page guidebook for individuals and communities seeking to build shoreline protection structures (Clark et al., 2007).
3. Educate the general public and political decision-makers together to foster communal learning and discussion.
The need for public engagement frequently arises when a concerned subset of the general public voices concerns about a political issue. Before making any decisions related to the issue in question, it is critical to take steps to engage the broader public in order to ensure that outcomes reflect the interest of the entire community, not merely the concerned subset who first raised the issue. After the completion of the original engineering study, the City of St. Joseph accomplished this through the use of educational meetings.
The process the City of St. Joseph developed was designed to disseminate study findings and generate discussion around the proposed setback line. Over the course of five regularly scheduled city and planning commission meetings, the consulting engineers were invited to lead discussions and answer questions about the short- and long-term cycles of Lake Michigan water levels, coastal hazards, the potential impacts of shoreline protection structures, and the process used to determine the placement of the proposed setback line (Morphey Interview, 2013). These meetings allowed interested citizens and city staff to come together to learn, ultimately alleviating their uncertainty about the situation being considered. As a result, the study served as a facilitator of sorts for further discussion between the public and the City Commission (Ozawa, 1996).
Recognizing that every community will have its own unique challenges, concerns and needs related to public engagement and coastal resilience planning, NOAA's Coastal Services Center has an online publication series intended to provide guidance on effective meeting planning, discussion facilitation and public engagement. This resource is a great starting point for any type of public engagement process formulation.
4. Present all materials in simple and engaging terms such that an individual with no prior knowledge could understand easily.
Data is a powerful resource for coastal managers, planners and experts who have the insight to understand its meaning. However, for citizens and decision-makers, raw numbers do little to communicate what they actually mean for the community. To promote better understanding of data, it is critical to employ visuals along with simple terminology. In St. Joseph, representatives from the consulting engineering firm used maps (pictured below), diagrams and easily understandable terms to explain complex coastal processes locally and to show the location of the proposed setback line.
City of St. Joseph Coastal Risk Map. Taken from: Edgewater, 2012.
City of St. Joseph Zoning Ordinance Boundary Map. Taken from: Edgewater, 2012.
The use of these methods effectively demonstrated how the new setback could protect public trust lands along the beach and prevent private property owners from developing in areas potentially at risk. The process that was followed fostered an environment in which a mutual understanding of the necessity of the proposed setback line could grow between city staff and the general public (Morphey Interview, 2013).
To facilitate replication of the methods used in the City of St. Joseph, some tools that are available for visualization and education on coastal processes are described below:
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District has created an oblique photo viewer which provides practitioners and the public with access to high-resolution images of the shores of the Great Lakes and other major water bodies in the region. In addition, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers publication "Living on the Coast" can be used as a resource for basic descriptions and visuals of coastal processes and their related hazards. Finally, through the combined efforts of NOAA's Coastal Services Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, visualization tools like CanVis can be used to simulate lake level change and coastal development impacts on photographs. These tools are effective for the visualization and explanation of complex coastal processes and hazards and can be accessed and used by ordinary citizens and professional practitioners alike.
The public engagement process completed in St. Joseph, Michigan, facilitated the passage of a zoning ordinance that created the Edgewater Beach Overlay District (EB-OD). This overlay zone applied a fixed setback line to the shoreline north of the St. Joseph River lakeward of which no new permanent structures could be built. The setback was designed to maintain public access along the beach and to prevent losses to private property by ensuring that the coastal hazards associated with severe storms on Lake Michigan during high water level periods would not reach them (Edgewater, 2012).
Critical considerations for coastal managers when implementing similar coastal zoning ordinances are the terms under which variances are granted and the timeline within which the ordinance needs to be reviewed and updated. Although these factors will vary from community to community, both will significantly impact the effectiveness of the ordinance in question.
To ensure that new setback lines continue to fulfill their purpose, it is essential that their locations be reviewed on a regular interval, for example, by a fixed number of years or a set change in water level. With the passage of the ordinance in the City of St. Joseph, it was recommended that the setback be reviewed a minimum of every ten years, or after a four-foot change in lake level has been observed (Edgewater, 2012). If such considerations are made and setback lines of this nature are revised in an orderly and regular manner, they can be guaranteed to continue to fit the specific needs of the community well into the future.