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Beach towns grapple with Great Lakes public access

1 Road end beach - 7th Street.JPG
Taylor Wizner
Interlochen Public Radio
The view from the 7th Street road end beach in Northport. Residents have used this site for swimming for more than 50 years.

As northern Michigan beaches get more crowded in the summertime, some people are flocking to small beaches off the beaten path.
The only problem? These “road end” beaches are often wedged between residential homes. And those homeowners aren’t happy.

On the evening of July 4th, a family went to a Northport public access site to go swimming. Their arrival upset the homeowners next door who started yelling at them. It was caught on video and spread on local social media pages.

“I’ll educate you for a second– this is a street access,” one of the neighbors can be heard saying. “It’s a street access for people that are allowed to go down and walk down to the water.”

Michigan rules are you can hang out below the high water mark on the Great Lakes, but road end rules say the public may only use the land to enter Lake Michigan, says Tom Oehmke, the attorney for Randal Koch, the property owner next door to the Northport public access.

“The social compact is that people who use this area to go into the water and come out of the water agree that’s all they’re going to use this for– they’re not going to make noise, they’re not going to set up their beach equipment. They’re not going to do anything other than go into the water and come out of the water.”

By law, road end beaches are not meant to be public beaches where people lounge for hours. But depending on the access site you go to, those rules can be pretty relaxed.

Some road end access points are tightly squeezed next to private homes. And when the rules aren’t followed, it can irritate next door homeowners, who complain of trespassing, theft and other disorderly conduct that impacts their enjoyment of their property.

Some of those homeowners complain that communities aren’t doing enough to make sure the rules are followed.

But in Northport, Steve Wetherbee, the village president, says if the village were to restrict the beach more in favor of homeowners, it would mean the public loses access.

“What you have to be careful of is closing down things that are really for the public good in order to cure one small problem. We’re not going to do that obviously,” he says.

Every Lake Michigan town has similar squabbles. But what makes road end disputes stand out, is the public outcry over what locals see as losing the ability to recreate in public spaces they’ve used for decades.

With visitation to Lake Michigan’s beaches’ surging in recent years, it’s crowded the most popular areas.

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Taylor Wizner
One of three no parking signs at the 7th Street public access site in Northport. Locals often park golf carts in the grassy area.

“The main beaches are busier,” says Jim Schwantes, Centerville Township Supervisor. “I was going swimming last year at Good Harbor … just because pretty much everywhere you look, there was people.”

Schwantes has noticed even the more reclusive spots are filled with people. He says people are willing to drive around for a while to find an empty beach.

Locals too have shied away from busy beaches and are using smaller, municipal beaches more.

Steve Wetherbee, Northport’s Village President, says their road ends are almost exclusively used by locals. He hasn’t seen an uptick in usage but says increased traffic to areas like Leland likely added to the tensions at their road end beaches, notably South Beach.

Wetherbee says people remember that it hasn’t always been this way, and that’s partly why both the homeowners and locals are upset.

“I used to be able to drive to Lake Michigan and find dozens of little places around the lake where I could park and swim,” he says. “And now they’re all built up. And that loss of public access to the Great Lakes is, I think, somewhat tragic.”

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Taylor Wizner
A rules of use sign in Northport.

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Taylor Wizner is the health and tourism reporter for IPR News. She joined IPR in 2019 after working at Detroit's Public Radio station, WDET. She graduated from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Michigan. When not sharing the news of the day, she enjoys spending time in northern Michigan's beautiful woods and dunes, often with her dog in tow.