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An uncertain future for a public beach in Leland

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Over generations, many Leland residents accessed Lake Michigan by a sandy road off Reynolds Street. It led to an area known as South Beach and nicknamed the Christmas Tree Beach, because of its proximity to a large pine tree.

Township Supervisor Susan Och says since at least the 1950s it was where most of the community went to relax in the sun.

“The people who use that beach, walk to the beach from their homes. Kids ride their bikes there,” she says.

But recently, the homeowners on the north and south ends of the road have sued the township, saying the land is theirs.

“I don’t know why the people on either side suddenly decided that it wasn’t a public beach and they owned that piece of property on either side,” Och says. “It’s not as if they were paying taxes on it all this time.”

The homeowners claim that Reynolds Street does not go all the way to Lake Michigan. They say that a mostly-vacated road called Water Street intersected with Reynolds Street, causing it to end before the beach.

Och says the land’s history is confusing.

“Some plat maps show Reynolds Street going all the way to the water — some don’t.”

The homeowners lawsuit against the township entered mediation in October last year.

The parties agreed to settle and the public would keep its access, but homeowners had several conditions. Among them, they wanted to put up a 6 or 9-foot wide fence along the path to the beach, and require residents’ permission before the township would deposit sands to replenish the naturally eroding beach.

At a township’s meeting earlier this month the community was not happy with the proposal. Och says more than 100 people showed up with the vast majority opposing their neighbors' conditions.

There were concerns about emergency responders having the ability to reach the beach with the fenced barriers and what could happen to the beach if the landowners refuse to agree to replenish the beach with sand.

While some feared a potentially expensive legal battle, township officials voted 3 to 2 against signing the agreement. The road commission followed suit and voted unanimously to reject the agreement.

A new agreement

Longtime Leland resident Bob Schlueter says he’s been disheartened by the change in beach culture over the years.

“Whether you accessed [Leland beaches] on a 60-foot road end or down through between two homes when the owner was saying ‘hi’ to you as you were walking by, there was never a question that it was public use,” he says.

But Schuleter says the popularity of the peninsula has boomed in the last couple of years. There are way more visitors crowding the small local beaches.

It’s not just tourists who can cause issues. Schuleter helped start the township’s parks and recreation department back in the 1990s and says even then local partying led to litter problems and nuisance complaints.

“We had a system where we followed up on complaints and we got down there. It wasn’t perfect.” he says.

“It’s never perfect. You have kids who have beer parties. You have kids who start fires.”

Schuleter suspects increasing complaints led to the lawsuit.

The landowners on either didn’t respond to messages for comment. One of their lawyers wrote IPR that because the case is still in negotiations, it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to comment.

Och says for now, officials have taken a “time out.”

The township plans to meet again with the road commission to come up with a new agreement.

Och says she hopes input from community members like Schuleter could resolve some issues.

But she’s concerned bad feelings might get in the way of an agreement.

Och says after the settlement was initially agreed to, she heard from locals who noticed one of the homeowners had installed security cameras pointed at the public beach.

For his part, Schuleter hopes the community doesn’t give up too much. He says other beach towns are watching to see what their rights are.

“The vast majority of easy access to water is privately owned. And that’s why we’re fighting really hard to protect the public accesses that exist now. Because creating new ones is not going to happen.”

Taylor Wizner covers heath, tourism and other news for Interlochen Public Radio.