MONTAGUE – It is no secret that the lake levels have been unusually high in Michigan, and they aren’t expected to go down any time soon.
One of the people who has been affected by them is Montague resident and property owner Jim Brewer. Brewer owns the property at 4464 Dowling St., which sits alongside the causeway connecting the cities of Whitehall and Montague.
In 2019, the high water spilled out onto the road there a number of times, requiring it to be closed for pumping. It got so bad that the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) was forced to close two lanes of the road in October, and install barriers to keep the water at bay.
It isn’t just the road that closes down when the water spills out of the lake, but also Brewer’s parking lot. The high water essentially turns his lot into a swimming pool making it impossible for customers to park.
Formerly, the property was rented out to Steve Crooks, the owner of WaterDog Outfitters. However, Crooks decided the water wasn’t worth dealing with, and plans to move his operation to Whitehall.
Brewer spoke to the Montague City Council on Monday, Jan. 20, to voice his frustration with the city, and it’s city manager Jeff Auch.
“I watched as the waters breached my seawall on the south, and overflow into my parking areas from the county drain on the north and east sides. It nearly missed entering my building. In my 20 years of ownership I have never seen this. Over 12 inches covered the road,” said Brewer who was speaking about a flooding that occurred on Nov.27, 2019.
Brewer said the city spent several thousands of dollars to evacuate water from the road, installing a pump on the property next to his own, and then pumped the water on to his property. He went on to tell the council that he asked Auch to stop pumping the water on to his property, and to move the discharge further back and away from his building.
“So we were trying to, as this was all being set up, to divert that water, and get it out of the parking lot, so that the business could still operate. The issue was, two things, we didn’t have the size of the pump or the distance to pump it all the way back here (Buttermilk Creek), said Auch in an interview with the White Lake Beacon.
“(We) don’t have a big enough pump, MDOT doesn’t have a big enough pump to get it that distance to pump it all that way. So we were only able to pump it to the ridge.”
The ridge Auch is speaking of is a slightly elevated area just between WaterDog, and the vacant medical services building next door. It was believed if the water could have been pumped over that ridge it would have flowed backwards into Buttermilk Creek.
The pump was removed, but Brewer told the council that he’d requested the pump be used to remove water from his parking lot as well. In his recollection of events he said he was told by Auch that the city had been doing him a favor, but were not responsible for removing the water.
“With discussions with them (MDOT), it wasn’t meant as a slight to him (Brewer), both the city and MDOT said worst case scenario if we have to we will put sandbags along the causeway and the easement there. Yes it’s going to temporarily block access, but it will preserve the causeway as a travel corridor,” said Auch.
During Brewer’s speech to the city council he said that he spoke to both Crooks, his tenant, and a civil engineer from MDOT who had both told Brewer that they’d heard he’d demanded the pump be removed. Brewer said this was not the case.
Brewer installed sandbags in his parking lot to build a seawall, but was given a cease-and-desist by the city, and said he was told that he would need a permit. He believes he met the requirements for the reasonable use rule, and did not need a permit from the Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy department (EGLE).
“After viewing permit requirements I do not believe I need a permit to extend my wall, or to install the sandbags. I also noted that EGLE permit process takes 60 to 90 days — which I do not have,” said Brewer.
“In my research I also found the state of Michigan also recognizes the reasonable use rule which the state supreme court specifically use for drain and wetland disputes.”
Auch said he doesn’t dispute that the city issued a cease-and-desist against Brewer, or that he might have met the requirements for reasonable use. However, Auch said he or anyone at the city are not authorized to decide if a property owner is meeting those requirements, and had told Brewer to contact EGLE to determine if he met them.
“My understanding of it is that his review of the state criteria for what he would need a permit for he was saying based on what he had looked at that he didn’t need a permit. So his argument, even to the city, that he didn’t need a permit based on what he had reviewed and found out. The city’s standpoint was we need to verify with the permitting agency, we can’t make that judgement call,” said Auch.
Auch would go on to say later, “If he gets the permits to do the things that he is doing, if he doesn’t need permits for the things that he is doing, I’m fine with that.”
Brewer said he did receive an inspection from EGLE, and was found to not need permits for the sand bags he installed, but in waiting for approval may have put his property in future peril.
“Not only has my property been put in peril due to the cease and desist, but the community and businesses also. I am fearful I will not be able to complete the wall and sandbag project before it is too late for my building to be damaged by rising water,” said Brewer.
In his speech to the city council Brewer said he heard the city was taking over ownership of the vacant property next to his own, and that he fears Auch might have ulterior motives to take over his property as well.
“He has told me the city is in the process of taking over ownership of the building next to mine, and the building is considered a blight and will be demolished,” said Brewer.
“When asked what the city is planning on doing with the empty lot I was told that it would be a good location for the retention pond.”
It is Brewer’s suspicion that the takeover has something to do with the city’s campground.
Auch said the city taking over the property has nothing to do with the campground, and that Brewer doesn’t have to worry about his property being condemned.
“So it wasn’t really condemnation, we are working with the U.S. Marshals to work on the med(ical) stop building. They acquired it because we had already cited that property several times for property maintenance issues,” said Auch.
“[...] So it has sort of gone down the process, abandoned building, dangerous structure. His building, no, we aren’t trying to close the building or close the property.”
Auch said what the city wants to do is work with businesses and make sure they stay operational.