Zoning Great Lakes water? Officials say no

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Rhode Island has designated ocean waters for certain uses – and a coastal lawyer predicts such zoning is coming to a Great Lake near you.

But several Great Lakes officials disagree.

The Rhode Island program, Ocean Special Area Management Plan, designates zones to protect fragile ecosystems and has rules telling people what they can do in the water.

The zoning program was done, in part, to foster offshore wind energy development.

Rhode Island's marine zoning is partly an effort to foster offshore wind energy projects. Photo: phault (Flickr)

“Just like a zoning law zones land, you can do the same in the water … officials can prohibit certain things and encourage others,” said John Boehnert, a Rhode Island lawyer specializing in coastal permitting and environmental law.

The regulations extend to the state-owned three nautical miles offshore.

In a recent American Bar Association article, Boehnert predicted Great Lakes waters would also soon be zoned like land.

Some Great Lakes officials aren’t buying it.

“We have no interest in zoning,” said Jennifer Day, a Great Lakes regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Her agency is mapping the public and private uses and environmentally sensitive areas of Great Lakes waters and coasts.  But it is not regulating them.

“Knowledge of all of the uses and regulations in waters in one place allows states to engage with developers and industry and identify places of little conflict,” Day said.  “But it will be a tool for people – not restrictions and regulations.”

In Rhode Island, a developer spent a lot of money on an offshore wave and wind energy project only to find out the project was in a channel used by naval submarines, Day said.  That prompted a coastal inventory and the subsequent zoning.

“A lot of people see the coastal and marine areas as the new Wild West where anything goes,” Day said.  “The desire to develop offshore is growing and we need to be prepared for that.”

Todd Main, program manager at the Illinois Coastal Management Program, is aware of zoning fears in the region, but doesn’t think it’s likely.

“There is certainly a new emerging consensus that as a region we need to work together,” Main said.  “But I don’t get the sense that means there’ll be zoning of any kind.”

In July 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law a National Ocean Policy with objectives for managing coastal areas — including the Great Lakes coasts – for business and development. This is also spurring the marine and coastal inventory.

The Great Lakes region is in the nascent stages of  developing a marine and coastal inventory.  It’s probably a year down the road, Day said.  She points to Ohio for a glimpse of what might happen.

That state has a suite of maps and information on water and coastal uses, including wind energy resource maps.

“We’re just showing people the best places to find the least resistance from other uses of the lake,” said Brenda Culler, spokesperson for Ohio’s Office of Coastal Management.  “We have information that would maximize the good aspects of our resources … but were not requiring people to follow those.”

Ohio’s program was spurred in part by wind developers, Culler said.  But it’s really a “tool to show where good places would be for different uses and minimizing conflicts.”

Culler is among the officials who don’t see zoning coming to the Great Lakes anytime soon.

Day says the efforts are not a case of unwarranted government intrusion.

”People think we’re going to dictate what goes on in every part of the lake and were not going to do that,” she said.

5 thoughts on “Zoning Great Lakes water? Officials say no

  1. Excellent article and good reporting.
    Rhode Island has estimated that its ocean zoning will result in federal permitting time for offshore wind projects being reduced from 10 years to two years. With that type of time and cost saving, it may be expected that developers may actually be urging other states to enact their own ocean zoning ordinances.

    Regarding the comments on the public trust doctrine, that was also one of the primary arguments used by Rhode Island as to why zoning of offshore waters was appropriate.

  2. This is old history in White Lake, Muskegon County.  Local and state Republican politicians based in Montague/Whitehall Michigan joined with developers to subdivide and privatized the White Lake bottomlands with the help of Governor John Engler and his DEQ Hal Harrington.  This was done over broad based objections of the community, but the corruption of money prevailed.  Money can buy anything in West Michigan just as special interest money will write the environmental history of White Lake to suit their needs.

  3. Of course, with the political and economic situation in some GL states, a governor and legislature is apt to privatize the bottomlands and sell to the highest bidder. They are doing it with drinking water facilities, so it is not too far of a stretch, especially if one of their corporate cronies wants it to happen.

  4. There is one fundamental difference between the coast of Rhode Island and the coast of the Great Lakes. The water and bottomlands of these inland freshwater seas belongs to the state and are held in public trust for benefit of citizens, now and in future. This means the state must manage the water to benefit the uses of the water and bottomlands by the public to protect from impairment boating, fishing, swimming, recreation, and the fish and habitat, and domestic basic water use. It also means these waters and bottomlands cannot be transferred or alienated for primarily private purposes and gain, but must remain in public in perpetuity. This has been the law of the Great Lakes since Illinois Central R Rd v Illinois U.S. Supreme Court case in 1892. All Great Lakes states follow it. Most states have statutes that control all use of these bottomlands and waters, therefore zoning, in the sense of land use, remainins with state, unless a very near shore issue is involved, like docks or marinas that involve uplands and bottomlands and water. Jim Olson, Chair, http://www.flowforwater.org

  5. It is my understanding that the bottom lands of the Great Lakes are OWNED by the states abutting the lake out to the next jurisdiction, to the center of Lake Michigan for instance. With ownership comes the authority to determine uses (within the law). So far Michigan has been sensitive to lakeshore communities’ wishes with regard to viewscape, etc. At some point decisions will need to be made regarding permitted uses. Whether it is through zoning or some other mechanism, the people’s interests will need to be asserted through state government not by a free enterprise “free for all”. That will not be an “intrusion” but a legitimate function of government as the representative of the people.

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