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450 gather for Pine Lake meeting

Luke Froncheck

Staff Writer

Back in the 1960s when Pine Lake reached unprecedented low water levels, little thought was ever given to what might happen if the lake ever got high enough to flood.  At a July 2 informational meeting held at the Delton Kellogg Middle School gymnasium, 450 Pine residents wanted answers to that exact situation.

The meeting, called by Barry County Drain Commissioner Jim Dull to discuss the numerous complaints he has received from reported flooding on Pine Lake, was also attended by Deputy Drain Commissioner Tammy Berdecia, Allegan County Drain Commissioner Denise Medemar, Allegan County engineer Joel Morgan, engineers Dan Fredricks and Chad Mencarelli of Land and Resource Engineering, and attorney Lauren Burton of Clark Hill PLC.

“We’re here to hear from you guys to see if we want to move forward with anything,” Burton said. “The point of the meeting is to see what’s going on out there. What is different? What is changed? Do we need to go out and do something more?”

Currently, Pine Lake sits at 894.1 feet which is six  inches higher than ever previously recorded and 3.6 feet higher than the minimum lake level set by a court decision in 1969. The lake's previous high level was last recorded in 1993 when the lake was at 893.6 feet, which has since been surpassed by today’s numbers.

According to Fredricks, 1,700 acres of surrounding land drains into the 660-acre lake. Pine Lake has no natural outlet, meaning the only way water exits is either through evaporation or infiltration into the ground beneath the lake. There are 12 miles of shoreline on Pine Lake and its deepest point is 34-feet deep.

Pine Lake sits almost entirely in Barry County, but there is a small fraction of the lake that resides in Allegan County, the reason for the attendance at the meeting by officials from that county.   That portion of the lake has three residences and stretches roughly 90 feet into Allegan County. Barry County holds the other mile and a half of the lake and the over-600 other residents. Because of the dual ownership between the two counties, Pine Lake is considered an intercounty lake.

Fredricks reported that, because of the unprecedented low water levels experienced in the 1960s, lake residents petitioned the circuit court then to establish a legal minimum lake level. The petition was granted and the normal level was set at 890.5-feet with a minimum level of 890-feet and a maximum level of 891 feet. The reasoning behind the petition was to allow placement of an augmentation well to pump ground water up into the lake and raise the water level.

“There was a minimum and a maximum established for when to use the pump,” Fredricks explained. “If the water got six inches below 890.5 feet the pump was turned on. If the water got above 890.1ft it was turned off. The pump was installed in 1970 and ran for a year until the water rose above the 891-foot mark and, to our knowledge, it has never been turned on again since.

“Back then they thought the lake would never get high enough to flood.”

In 1992, a group of landowners on the lake went to court seeking to enforce the legal lake level maximum of 891 feet set in 1969.  The decision went to the Court of Appeals twice. The appeals court ruled that the 1969 order was too old and that it would not enforce it.

The appeals court did rule in 1992 that the lower circuit court must have another hearing regarding minimum and maximum levels. That court then re-established the low level of 890 feet and the normal level of 890.5 feet but it did not set a new maximum water level, citing that it would only benefit four and one-half percent of property owners.

In 1997, the court clarified its order saying that “there is one normal lake level of 890.5 unless seasonal variation cause the lake to exceed that level.”

From Fredricks'  perspective that legal opinion sets precedent for the county drain commissioner.

“The court has set the legal precedent that there is no real obligation for the drain commissioner to be responsible for making the water level go down,” Fredricks said, explaining that the purpose of the July 2 meeting was to hear from the people on Pine Lake so that he and the drain commissioner could learn what the public wanted them to do and whether that might or might not lead to a possible solution through drain mantenance procedures.

During the public comment portion of the meeting, one woman told the surrounding crowd that she has been spending thousands of dollars on flooding repairs and prevention. Citing the possible increased costs for drain maintenance and reconstruction procedures, she then asked for any person who would be willing to spend $500 a year to get relief to raise their hand.  Every hand in the room shot up.

“Our goal coming into this meeting was seeing you, hearing your concerns, and seeing if it was an ultimatum to move forward,” said Dull, who reported he has received 37 different photographs detailing flooded properties across the lake.

One resident yelled out, “What is your assessment of the meeting then?”

“My assessment of this meeting is that we have a mandate to move forward and as quickly as possible,” replied Dull.

According to Dull, the goal is not to bring the lake down to 890.5 feet, but rather to bring it down to a point where the water can fluctuate and no one's property will be flooded.

Fredricks said that a conservative estimate for a long-term relief effort would have construction begin in 2021 and cost somewhere near $3 million, translating to $500 per resident per year over a 10-year period for the 625-property assessment district set in 1975.

According to the Drain Code, each property will be assessed at the conclusion of the project based on the benefit derived from the solution – meaning assessment of lakefront property will be higher than that of property that does not border the lake.

Fredricks said that because the 625-property assessment district had already been established there was no need to re-do the long legal process.

The next step is to go before both the Barry and Allegan County Boards of Commissioners. Those boards must be willing to pass a resolution allowing the drain commissioner to spend more than the $10,000 allotted yearly for maintenance of the drain.  Both boards must approve the resolution for a relief effort to begin.



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