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Norton: Helping Coastal Communities Address Changing Shorelines

Thursday, January 13, 2022

Richard Norton’s research focuses on the Great Lakes, and how shoreline communities can become more resilient in the face of climate change. But his relationship with the largest freshwater system in the world is also personal. Norton grew up in Ohio, visiting Lake Erie, and his son attended Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula, affording the family plenty of opportunities to see Lake Superior. He has also spent vacations along the shores of Lakes Michigan and Huron, in small resort towns like Alpena and South Haven.

“And wherever I go, I’m always looking at beaches,” says Norton, professor of urban and regional planning. 

In recent years, lakeside communities have struggled to cope with the effect of rising water levels and erosion on the beaches that have made them such attractive places for vacationers and residents alike. Norton’s work explores how humans can safely adapt to these environmental changes, while also protecting the unique ecosystems that make the Great Lakes region special.

“The Great Lakes are much like oceans in terms of the power of the systems involved, but they’re different from the oceans in some key ways,” Norton says. The lakes, he explains, are not large enough to have tides, so water levels don’t change twice a day as along ocean shorelines. “But they do fluctuate pretty substantially over the course of decades. Lake Michigan, for example, can vary by as much as six feet in standing water levels over a decade or two.”

The Great Lakes’ water levels have been rising and falling as long as there have been lakes, and the cycle is regular enough that humans can make rough predictions. But sometimes periods of low water stretch on for so long that people seem to forget that what goes down must come up again. That’s what happened between 1990 and 2013, a time that coincided with a waterfront building boom.

“A whole lot of homes got built in that low water period, much too close to the water, and many of them are quite sizable,” Norton says. “And then when the lakes came back up, it created a whole lot of havoc.”

With the rising waters have come an increase in requests for permits to manage beach erosion through so-called “armoring structures” like boulders, bulkheads, and seawalls. These efforts can bring temporary reprieve for a shoreline home, but there are also long-term consequences that extend far beyond a single family’s property.

“These armoring structures result in the loss of the natural beach, so it’s an ongoing cost to maintain them,” Norton explains. Beach armoring also disrupts a natural cycle in which sand is scoured from beaches by high water, then later redeposited as water levels fall. “There’s growing evidence that the more you armor the shoreline, the more you’re starving the system of the sand the beach needs to replenish itself,” Norton says, “and the more likely you’re going to permanently lose the beach, along with natural habitats.”

Beaches are part of a surprisingly intricate natural system, but the political and legal situation can seem just as complicated. It’s crucial that humans build more carefully, but what can be built where is determined by a patchwork of local authorities, many of which don’t have the capacity to plan with the distant future in mind — or the political will to resist the property tax revenues that come with large lakeside homes. 

“We’re doing a lot of work trying to understand what local governments are doing in Michigan, and we’ve found that they’re not doing much,” Norton says. “We’ve left most of the zoning authority to local units of government, and the work we’ve done has shown that most governments just aren’t paying attention. For so long it just hadn’t been an issue.”

To help them do more, Norton is leading an interdisciplinary program called Resilient Great Lakes Coast, which brings together researchers from Taubman College, U-M’s School of Environment and Sustainability, the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Tech, and the Traverse City, Michigan-based nonprofit Land Information Access Association to provide a clearinghouse of hazard risk data, research on planning methods, and case studies. Norton, who also is a lawyer, is working to educate local officials about the legal issues, helping them consider how they can adapt their land use regulations to a dynamic shoreline, perhaps by incorporating setbacks into their zoning codes. 

These are pressing issues, Norton says, set to become more pressing as climate change makes the Great Lakes’ fluctuations more frequent and less predictable, with higher highs and lower lows.

“I say to local communities, ‘I can’t come in here and tell you what to do, but we need to do a better job of making sure everybody understands the tradeoffs,’” Norton says. “You can’t stop natural processes to protect built structures and save the environment at the same time.”

In addition to his research on coastal shoreland planning, Norton contributes actively to community service through work with the Michigan Association of Planning (MAP). As a member of MAP’s Planning Law Committee, he has assisted in various efforts to provide draft legislation for the Michigan Legislature on planning- and zoning-related issues, including substantial revisions to the Michigan Planning Enabling Act and Michigan Zoning Enabling Act adopted in the late 2000s. He also has provided pro bono legal counsel for MAP, writing and filing amicus curiae (‘friend of the court’) appellate briefs on behalf of MAP to the Michigan Court of Appeals, the Michigan Supreme Court, and U.S. Court of Appeals on various zoning-related topics, including coastal shoreline development regulation, local zoning regulation of gravel mining, and local zoning regulation for woodland preservation. Through that work, he recently participated in oral arguments before the 6th Circuit.

While it’s not unusual for a court of appeals to accept an appellate brief filed on behalf of an amicus, it is highly unusual to allow an amicus to participate in oral arguments before the court. “I’ve had a number of legal colleagues tell me that they’ve never heard of that happening,” says Norton. “I think the issues in the case are so complex and nuanced (and pretty arcane), the court allowed me, along with another attorney representing another amicus arguing in support of the property owner, to participate in order to help fully brief all of the important issues.”

— Amy Crawford

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