SPRING LAKE TWP. — An aging “for sale” sign marks the road side of James and Sammie Congleton’s home in Spring Lake Township — one of many such signs in the lakeshore neighborhood between Grand Haven and Norton Shores.
“We’ve been trying to sell it for a couple years,” Sammie said Monday as she looked at the waves eating away at the dune supporting her home. “Now we can’t even give it away.”
James Congleton bought his home in 1991, when the water receded after the record high Lake Michigan levels of the 1980s, and he raised his children here. Sammie sighs as she looks at their lower deck, supported by chains while hanging over open air where there once used to be a sand dune.
When Sammie and James married in 2009, after each losing their spouses, there was a dune the length of a football field out there, Sammie said.
“We thought we were plenty far back," she said.
The Congletons made a stop at their home Monday afternoon to pick up mail and a few other belongings from the mostly empty house.
“We’ve been giving away furniture to family and friends,” Sammie said. “We’d rather give it away than have it fall into the lake.”
As of Monday, the home sat solidly on the bluff, but predicted storms Tuesday into Wednesday were a great cause of concern — not only to them, but also to many of their neighbors, Sammie said.
The Congletons have looked into building a seawall or installing rocks to help save their home, but government permit regulations are taking too much time — time that many homeowners along the lakeshore are finding they no longer have.
Over the past few years, the couple have noticed the receding beach as the water levels rose.
“The last two years, it’s been going really quickly,” Sammie said. “Wow. Who knew?”
On June 24, the water was reaching the bottom of the steps that extended from their lower deck.
“A storm in mid-July separated the steps from the lower deck,” Sammie said. “In August, the steps went down.”
After the most recent storm last week, the Congletons came home to find their lower deck leaning down.
Sammie said there’s no insurance available to lakeshore homeowners and that taxes on the homes are extremely high.
“I mailed a letter to the governor asking why we shouldn’t be allowed to have insurance,” Sammie said.
She also took pictures of the erosion so close to her home and took it to the township tax assessor’s office.
“They said they can reassess in March,” she said.
On the south side of Grand Haven, Tom Rizzo was checking on his Stickney Ridge property on Sunday.
“The erosion has been steady this spring and summer,” he said. “But, I was shocked by this last surge by how much it took off in one gulp. The water is up as high as I ever remember it. Everybody up and down the shore is concerned. I keep my fingers crossed.”
Rizzo owns the property, called the Sea King, where a large part of the cottage collapsed during high water levels in 1986.
“Someone bought it, cut off the back third and moved it back,” he said. Rizzo bought the cottage in 1993 and rebuilt it.
One solution, as was done for some lakefront homes in the 1980s, is to pick them up and move them away from the lakeshore. Dan Deitz of Deitz House Moving and Engineers is in the process of doing just that for a home on Rosabelle Beach Avenue near Holland.
The moving process alone can take from 2-3 weeks to a couple of months, depending on the size of the house and terrain, Deitz said. And that’s only possible after weeks of getting permits from the local jurisdictions and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (formerly the Department of Environmental Quality). The EGLE permit alone takes six weeks, Deitz said.
Deitz said he is under contract to move more homes, and after last week’s storm surge, is receiving a lot more inquiries.
“People are desperately trying to figure out what to do,” he said.
Deitz noted that the governor might have to look at making an emergency declaration for homes along Lake Michigan.
“That’s what they had to do back in the '80s,” he said.
The forecast and the dangers
The National Weather Service issued a lakeshore flood warning beginning Monday through 8 a.m. Wednesday. Southwest winds of 35-45 mph with higher gusts were expected to continue into Tuesday night, with waves of up to 10-12 feet expected.
Officials said that significant beach and dune erosion was expected, with southwest-facing shorelines, such as the Grand Haven area, experiencing the worst conditions.
“The combination of high Great Lakes water levels, a storm level rise of around a foot or so, and large battering waves will lead to erosion of the dune base, which can lead to bluff collapse,” the National Weather Service said Tuesday.
The extended forecast calls for the wind to calm into the 6 mph range late Wednesday night. The next few days are expected to be partly to mostly sunny, with highs ranging from the upper 40s to the lower 50s.