ENVIRONMENT: Wetland protection a hot issue in Antrim County

“The straw that broke the camel’s back was the issue of the Veit project near Intermediate Lake. This was another case of the DEQ granting permission to a property owner to build on wetlands that were previously identified as not buildable.”

–Peter Garwood

ANTRIM CO. – Last December, the Antrim Co. Board of Commissioners charged the Planning Commission with two tasks: to look into what is happening to wetlands in the county and state-wide, and draft an ordinance that protects the wetlands. That assignment is nearing completion as planning commissioners plan a final review of the draft document entitled, “Ordinance for the Protection and Regulation of Wetland Areas in Antrim County.”

While the current focus is on the content and implications of the draft, Peter Garwood, Coordinator/Planner for Antrim Co., knows as well as anyone why commissioners were compelled to address wetland protection.

“The county commissioners noticed that properties, particularly lake properties previously not buildable, suddenly had homes on them,” Garwood said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back was the issue of the Veit project near Intermediate Lake. This was another case of the DEQ granting permission to a property owner to build on wetlands that were previously identified as not buildable.”

That original Board of Commissioner’s directive set the stage for a collaborative effort by citizens to take a hard look at the county’s environmental future and the role wetlands play.

“Water is what makes this area so special,” Garwood said. “Antrim County is one of only two counties in the lower peninsula that has approximately 11 percent of its surface area as lakes. Wetlands act as a filter to keep impurities out of that water. That translates into a health issue for clean drinking water, as well as an aesthetic issue. When water levels are high, lakefront wetlands act as a buffer to prevent flooding. In the end, water is the lifeblood of our economy.”

The process used to develop the draft ordinance is as significant as the document itself. A Wetland Committee was established consisting of planners, lake association members, and private citizens.

Early on, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council put on a workshop to help the Wetland Committee identify what other communities in the state have done to address the issue. The focus was to learn what approaches have worked and not worked. Meridian Township in the Lansing area, for example, has such an ordinance.

“We used the Meridian Township document as a starting point but then went through eight drafts,” Garwood noted.

Antrim County Associate Planner Eric Cline did much of the draft writing and the committee reviewed each version. After Cline left his position, the work was completed by Janet Person from the Conservation District.

Garwood summarized the key points of the current version: “Antrim County personnel will administer the ordinance using local people who are familiar with the county. The DEQ still has regulatory authority. The provisions are 95 percent educational and 5 percent regulatory. The purpose is to educate property owners on how to respect wetlands and to work with the county and DEQ in a cooperative effort.”

The ordinance will allow the county to regulate wetlands that are not within 500 feet of a body of water. Currently, these are not regulated by the DEQ.

But this does not mean that every square inch of land that has water on it will suddenly fall under regulatory scrutiny.

“We will only focus on high quality wetlands that feed the recharge areas for the aquifer that people draw drinking water from,” Garwood said. “We have a formula for determining a high quality wetland and this will be used on a case-by-case basis.”

The road to adoption has not been without controversy. The Wetland Committee held a public hearing on Sept. 18 and heard from several citizens deeply opposed to any attempts to further regulate their land. The violation of property rights is their primary concern.

Jack Norris, member of the Antrim County Planning Commission and leading resource in the area on water quality, disagrees that regulating wetlands violates property rights.

“Even putting in a road through a wetland can change the flow of water unless it is done right,” he explained. “Water does not respect property boundaries. It is not like trees or rocks that are permanent structures. Water moves. Your right to control that water is offset by the rights of others who may be impacted by intervening in the flow of that water.”

Since the public hearing, the Wetland Committee has addressed the issues and was slated to give the final draft to the Planning Committee by their Oct. 3 meeting.

If it is approved, the document will be forwarded to the county Board of Commissioners for final adoption.

Garwood is hopeful it will be adopted before the end of the year.

“I am disappointed in the direction the DEQ has taken that made the wetland ordinance necessary. I know the field staff have the best intentions, but directives from Lansing have forced them to do these things. On the positive side, citizens and the Commissioners have been willing to put their best foot forward for the natural resources of Antrim County.” BN