January 15, 2007

State Deeding 700 Pieces of Waterfront Land

By Peggy Walsh-Sarnecki, Detroit Free Press

Jan. 14--Longstanding questions about whether the state could one day kick them out have been settled for hundreds of cottage owners in two popular Michigan waterfront playgrounds.

Still, some who own cottages on Higgins Lake in northern Michigan and in the St. Clair Flats headwaters of Lake St. Clair think it's a mixed blessing.

Under two bills unanimously passed in the Legislature -- one last month, one last summer -- the state is deeding more than 700 pieces of land it owns to veterans and their heirs who own property in the American Legion's Camp Curnalia on Higgins Lake and to leaseholders of mostly small islands in Lake St. Clair's flats.

The deal gets the state Department of Natural Resources out of the land-leasing business in the two areas and should lead to better environmental protection for the lakes.

At the Higgins Lake camp, the deal would likely enable a sewer project to take the 412 cottages off potentially leaky septic tanks.

In the St. Clair Flats, the change ensures that tough environmental rules prevent any more development on the sensitive wetlands area. The flats are the world's largest freshwater delta.

Since the leases began in 1913, many leaseholders filled in submerged islands, so they could build seawalls and cottages and add septic systems. Many properties haven't been developed and will revert to the state beginning in 2013.

"It will be very difficult to obtain permits to dredge and fill those undeveloped lots," said Tom Graf, a specialist with the Department of Environmental Quality.

The state is selling 321 parcels to St. Clair Flats leaseholders.

About two dozen are on Harsens Island and accessible by car; the rest can be reached only by boat or seaplane.

The price to the state will be based on current values of the land alone, not including improvements including fill dirt and seawalls. Local assessors estimate small lots could go for as little as $5,000 and larger ones for up to $200,000.The 99-year leases on the land begin expiring in 2013.

Ron Kahl, whose primary home is on the mainland across the North Channel from the property, spends summer weekends on the flats island that has been in his family since 1913. He's worried he'll be charged too much.

"You can't use the current values. What are you going to pay for a piece of water?" Kahl said, noting that his land was submerged when it was first leased.

Still, Kahl is glad he'll have the chance to buy the land.

"It gets rid of the uncertainty," he said. "Plus you can borrow on the property to improve it."

In the past, cottages on the flats sold for $100,000 to $200,000. Two real estate listings on leased St. Clair Flats parcels include a one-acre island with a four-bedroom cottage for $275,900 and another parcel on Harsens Island for $149,000.

If cottage owners won't pay for the deed, the land will revert to the state at the end of the lease.

Jay Deboyer of Algonac, who co-owns a flats cottage, doesn't like the idea that people who can't afford to buy the land could lose the investment they've made in improvements.

"They're the ones who created the value," he said.

At Camp Curnalia, most of the 412 cottage owners are American Legion members or first generation descendants. Many of the Legion posts represented are from the Midland area, even though veterans from anywhere in Michigan eligible to join the American Legion can buy properties.

The cottages have sold most often between $50,000 and $125,000 depending on how close they were to the lake, local real estate agents said.

The Legion property includes nearly 76 acres, including 3,000 feet of lake frontage. The state is selling the land for just $154.50. The 412 cottage owners will pay the American Legion a one-time fee of $50.

The sale price was based on what the American Legion paid to rent the land, said Veronica LaDuke, communications director for state Sen. Michelle McManus, R-Lake Leelanau, who introduced the legislation to sell the camp land.

"The land was already set aside for veterans to use," LaDuke said. "This was a way to preserve that and take it out of the DNR's purview."

Non-veterans looking for an opportunity can forget it, said Paul Tatro, supervisor of Roscommon County's Lyon Township. Camp Curnalia will continue to be sold only to veterans eligible for American Legion membership, he said.


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