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State legislature may allow for modifications to critical sand dunes

A bill recently passed by the Michigan Senate could allow changes to some of the most precious sand dunes in the state.
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Maps of Critical Dune Areas

For other critical dune area maps from around the state, head to the DEQ's listing.

Undeveloped dunes could become more scarce if SB 1130 is passed.

Undeveloped dunes could become more scarce if SB 1130 is passed. /Courtesy of WMEAC

A bill recently passed by the Michigan Senate - and subsequently returned - may cause some concerning changes to the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act of 1994, also known as Public Act 451. The proposed amendments will directly affect the protections surrounding sand dunes that regulators have designated "critical dunes." Critical dunes encompass 70,000 of the 250,000 dune acres in the state, some of which are located in recreational areas dear to the citizens of Grand Rapids. Without these protections, local coastlines could look remarkably different.

Senate Bill 1130 was proposed in May and passed the state Senate last month. Opponents of the bill include West Michigan Environmental Action Council, Alliance for the Great Lakes, Tip of The Mitt Watershed Council and Michigan Environmental Council, among others. 

A major concern of these groups is the modification of the law's original intent from one of ecological conservation towards one of economic development: The bill would remove a section that assures "the protection of the environment and the ecology of the critical dune areas for the benefit of the present and future generations" and replace it with language that would balance the benefits of protecting the state's critical dunes with the expected benefits of economic development.

Sought changes to the law also include a minimization of community participation by allowing local units of government to charge an application notification fee to residents and reducing the requirements for public notice. The paving of driveways and parking lots in dune areas will also be allowed under the alterations. Such provisions could impede the natural processes that have caused the dunes to form into their present states as well as the political processes that allow affected citizens to express their concerns.

Nick Occhipinti, director of policy and community activism for WMEAC, said, "We can't mess around with the Pure Michigan ecosystems that make this state so special."

SB 1130 is largely supported by homebuilding and real estate groups. Supporters believe that the current legislation places too many restrictions on development in critical dune areas. According to Lee Schwartz of the Michigan Association of Home Builders, the modifications that SB 1130 has proposed could allow millions of dollars of property development to occur along the coastline.

An update to the legislation is desired by the Department of Environmental Quality but the agency has said that some of the changes found in SB 1130 go too far.

Many of the dunes present at local beaches in Grand Haven, Saugatuck, Muskegon and other areas along the shoreline are currently protected because they have been deemed critical dunes. Though some of these are protected as public land, not all of them have this luxury. If SB 1130 is passed, those critical dunes that are supposedly protected will become more susceptible to land development.

Many families from Grand Rapids found themselves traveling to Lake Michigan for some relief from the heat during the recent holiday. The temperatures on the Fourth of July reached higher than 100 degrees and the waters of Lake Michigan were certainly refreshing. If development is allowed to occur, the enigmatic vistas of the dunes that go hand-in-hand with the breathtaking views of Lake Michigan could be permanently altered.

"I've spent countless hours in Lake Michigan. The dunes are a huge part of the experience, both visually and environmentally. Without them, the shore wouldn't be the same," said Erik Zimmerman, a concerned resident of Grand Rapids.

After efforts by many environmental groups and opposition from Gov. Snyder, the Senate requested that the bill be returned from the House before heading to recess for the summer. This does not mean that the bill will not pass, but it does mean that any potential approval will be delayed. Opponents are collaborating and continuing to work against the passing of the bill.

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