Leelanau News and Events

A New Lake Leelanau Preservation Board (And Special Assessment District) Proposed To Fight Unprecedented Threats

By Emily Tyra | May 3, 2021

There’s a new development in Lake Leelanau’s fight of the Eurasian watermilfoil, the aggressive invasive weed first discovered in the lake in 2019. The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners is now considering adopting a resolution that would establish an independent Lake Leelanau Preservation Board. Such boards may be established under the provisions of Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act and consist of the following: a member of the County Board of Commissioners; a representative of each local unit of government (the six townships Lake Leelanau borders); the County Drain Commissioner, and a waterfront property owner appointed by the lake board.

Once formed, the board would take steps to collectively pool resources to protect the lake for the long-haul, including fighting what Lake Leelanau Lake Association (LLLA) President Tom Hiatt told the Leelanau Ticker is “most serious threat Lake Leelanau has ever faced.”

The gravity of this emerging Eurasian watermilfoil (EWM) problem, in brief: The weed — most likely introduced to the U.S. as an aquarium plant — wreaks havoc by forming dense mats on the lake’s surface, crowding out native plants, decreasing oxygen levels, reducing fish populations and making recreational activities unpleasant if not impossible. All of this, says Hiatt, stands to lower lake property values, and endanger economies and livelihoods of the surrounding community.

Now, Hiatt and members of the LLLA say this unprecedented challenge means taking bold action. They have asked the County Board of Commissioners to support a resolution to establish a lake board, which would be then be authorized to create a special assessment district to finance and control threats to Lake Leelanau such as EWM. 

As it stands now, combating the current EWM-infested sites in South Lake Leelanau and south of the Narrows has fallen solely on the shoulders of the LLLA nonprofit, in partnership with the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa & Chippewa Indians (GTB). LLLA Lake Biologist Brian Price recruited the help of naturalists with GTB for a remediation plan in 2020 which included lake-bottom burlap blankets and diver-assisted harvesting of the weed. To date, LLLA raised and spent more than $100,000 to remove four acres of EWM, which, according to Hiatt, came from just a handful of donors. The GTB received a federal grant to support the work, providing an additional $40,000 in 2020.

The nonprofit LLLA and GTB are bracing for their second season of the fight; the 2021 efforts will be similar in scope and cost.

Candidly, Hiatt tells the Leelanau Ticker, as a small nonprofit, LLLA “is tapped out,” noting that annual weed control programs on the 15-mile-long lake will continue to be “herculean efforts, required for years to come.” He and others on the board at LLLA say it’s unrealistic, unpredictable, and inequitable to continue to seek and rely on donations of just a few in maintaining one of the county’s most precious assets.

As South Lake Leelanau resident and board member Nancy Popa, explains, “the problem is too big and too important for any small volunteer organization to manage, and we are not adequately equipped to deal with the long-term challenges.” She cites, as an example, constructing, staffing and maintaining boat washing stations. Record tourism is bringing substantially greater boat traffic, she says; meanwhile, the ongoing spread of aquatic invasive species to inland waters can be attributed small boats moving between watersheds.

She states, “The only effective way to reduce aquatic weed infestations in Lake Leelanau is to build and maintain boat washing stations at most if not all boat launching sites. [The lake] has 11 public boat launches and no boat washing stations, leaving Lake Leelanau extremely vulnerable to invasive species.”

Lake Biologist Brian Price notes that establishing a Lake Leelanau Preservation Board and special assessment district would address EWM before it becomes an even more expensive problem. Moreover, a board would allow continuity in leadership when addressing long-term challenges facing Lake Leelanau, including preventing additional infestations of invasive aquatic species and protecting the water quality that now provides lake residents and others the recreational opportunities they value most about the lake.

Popa acknowledges that some may question the need for additional government oversight and “there is always a concern that lake residents will lose control.” She sees it differently: “A special assessment district provides a means to build consensus and get the job done.”

Steve Martineau, an attorney, LLLA committee member, and North Lake Leelanau resident notes that more than 100 lake communities in Michigan — “46 in Oakland County alone” — have taken this step, and that it is only after public comment that the lake board makes a decision on whether or not to proceed with the recommended improvement project. A second public hearing must be held on the proposed special assessment roll.

While the lake board would establish which properties would be included in the special assessment — also a decision requiring a public hearing — typically this would include only properties that directly benefit, namely, all lakefront properties and back lots with deeded or dedicated lake access.

Hiatt tells the Leelanau Ticker that in conversations with lakefront property owners who are also LLLA members “so far the overwhelming number of responses…have been supportive of the proposal to create an independent lake board.”

Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik says the resolution language should be available for review this week, and the request to pass a resolution to form a Lake Leelanau Preservation Board will be on the agendas at the commissioners’ meetings scheduled for May 11 and May 18.

Meanwhile, Chairman William Bunek calls the resolution, “a very tough decision. The board last year decided not to establish a special assessment district (SAD) for the dam on Lake Leelanau. It was estimated to cost $40,000 per year for the maintenance, inspections and repairs for the dam. This new SAD for Lake Leelanau is estimated to cost $100,000 per year. My first thought is if we are to set up a SAD it should include all the costs of maintaining the lake.”

Commissioner Gwenne Allgaier tells the Leelanau Ticker she sees it “as the next necessary step to protecting our lakes. Invasive species are quickly spreading, and I envision that lake protection, via a homeowner tax levy, will become a necessary requisite to lake living.”

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