By Carol Westfall
Pleasant Lake in Freedom Township, Michigan
Who is my lake representative? Who protects my lake’s interests? Lake property owners often ask these questions and assume the responsibility rests with local officials or their lake association. After almost 10 years of lake living, I now believe there is only one person truly accountable for maintaining lake protections: YOU! Yes, you and your fellow lake residents are the only ones who can fully represent your lake; advocate on behalf of your lake; and bring together lake residents, officials, and other constituents to gather support for lake protections.
I learned the hard way. A few years ago, our lake residents were invited by township officials to provide input into a new Master Plan and Zoning Ordinance but very few lake residents showed any interest. That was our mistake. Later, we were later caught by surprise when some parts of the new zoning ordinance did not reflect our lake’s needs. Changes were made but not without enormous lake resident effort. Learn from our mistakes and help protect your lake’s future. Here are a few tips to get you started.
TIP #1: Regularly attend local planning commission and board meetings. If you’re personally not available recruit a fellow lake resident to attend in your place. Local officials need to know lake residents care about their decisions; that you’re involved and watching everything they do that affects the lake. Get to know your officials now and build relationships with each of them – before you have a lake/water issue. You must help them act in the best interests of your lake.
TIP #2: Educate yourself and the lake residents. Study your local zoning ordinance and determine how each section affects lake properties. Find qualified Michigan zoning and planning experts to serve as your coaches. Take advantage of available resources and training. Example: Contact the MSU Planning and Zoning Center- www.canr.msu.edu/landpolicy/program/planning; 517-432-2222. Even better, get lake residents appointed to the planning commission and committees. Run for office!
TIP #3: Build a coalition of lake residents to support your lake advocacy efforts. When a problem occurs, you will need numbers (officials respond to constituent volume) – letters, emails, phone calls, meeting attendees. Lake advocates can get tagged as “trouble makers”. You will want the support of your fellow lake residents.
TIP #4: Create alliances and media involvement. Get to know your local newspaper editors and writers. Educate them about your lake advocacy efforts and challenges. Invite them to relevant meetings. Most have limited budgets and staff so you must do the leg work — submit articles and pictures to get your message in print and let the public know what’s going on.
The State of Michigan ranks dead LAST in the country for government ethics and transparency (http://www.freep.com/story/news/politics/2015/11/09/michigan-ranks-last-laws-ethics-transparency/75288210/). No Board of Ethics; no State Ombudsman; no place to appeal. Taking your message to the public can often be your best method to gain support for lake protection challenges. Public opinion matters to officials.
TIP #5: Don’t give up! Lake advocacy is not for the timid. Strengthen your lake association and long-term lake protection plans, then stick with your strategy. Adapt as needed when obstacles present themselves. Your persistence will be rewarded and your lake will be the beneficiary.
Our lake resident advocacy efforts and enhanced public awareness have yielded tremendous results. We now have an empowered lake resident coalition – residents who are more vocal and visible lake advocates. Zoning updates have improved our lake protections (ie, updated keyhole protections). A Special Assessment District was approved to manage invasive species. And, a lake resident was appointed to the Planning Commission.
We became involved in a water protection conference held in late 2016 at our township hall. It was co-sponsored by Michigan State University, the Huron River Watershed Council, Washtenaw County, and other groups. The highly successful event attracted over 75 participants and included lake residents and township officials from as far as 200 miles away. We have also successfully invited our county representatives, state representative and state senator to speak at annual lake association meetings. Quality speakers and timely topics have drawn the attention of local media and improved attendance and interest in our lake.
Michigan needs lake resident leadership. There’s never been a better time to step forward. Follow the above five tips and you’ll be well on the way to protecting your lake’s future.