A wealthy town develops its coast -- and washes away its neighbors

Sand Blasted 

A wealthy town develops its coast -- and washes away its neighbors

Like his neighbors, Ted Lyndall has A View, and the caps are well-earned on this one.

You can't glimpse it from Chapel Road Extension, a gravel street in Madison swallowed up in tree shade and officiously guarded with a "PRIVATE DRIVE" sign. But beyond Lyndall's back porch, after an ample swath of backyard grass, Lake Erie swings into view. Today, the water's pixilated surface replays the morning sunshine. Canada floats off somewhere behind all the blue.

"Most of the people that buy on the lake, they buy because they want that uninterrupted view of the water," Lyndall says.

Tall and ruddy, Lyndall is a home contractor in the late innings of middle age. He's owned the property since 1983, and he and his wife built on it six years later. Like the dozen or so other buildings on the bluff, the home isn't a McMansion, but modest and well-maintained. Many of the owners here bought their lots when they were just a chunk of the tree line, then waited for the day when they could tap a pension or scrape together the savings to get the panoramic view they'd always wanted.

Lyndall is gingerly navigating the precipitous wooden steps to the beach, which sits below a 50-foot drop fully dressed with deep foliage. He's recapping years past, when extended family would trek to his home and celebrate holidays on the shore below. He's got photos to prove it: 3x5s of kids colonizing the beach with sand castles while adults watch from blankets.

"From the base of the bank to the water's edge was a distance of about 40, 50 feet. It was a lot of sand," Lyndall recalls. "We always have had that much since we owned the land."

Where the stairs bottom out, bright sun replaces the green shade. But instead of the wide boulevard of beach promised in the photographs, only about 10 feet of pebbly sand stands between Lyndall and the frayed edge of the water. As the waves pulse in, two's nearly a capacity crowd.

According to Lyndall and his neighbors, the reason this trembling lip of beach doesn't live up to its former glory can be found only a couple hundred yards west, right over the line that separates Madison from North Perry. Along that patch of coast, the neighboring village has constructed a $4.35 million private marina at Townline Park, complete with docks, protective breakwalls, and a residents-only beach.

But from where the Madison residents are standing, the project looks less like coastal improvement and more like botched surgery. The families along the coast claim their beaches have shrunk ever since the marina was built, the result of an interruption in the flow of sand needed for a stable coastline. It's a man-made blunder, they claim: one that's costing them the very asset that brought them out here in the first place — and one that North Perry should have seen coming.

"Our dilemma is, how do we get our beaches restored," Lyndall says as the lake slaps at his ankles. "They're not making any more of it."

HARBOR OF REFUGE

The North Perry-Madison line in Lake County seems like Northeast Ohio's last reach, where the region begins to lean hard into the countryside. Out here, gas stations sell bait and roads rarely fatten out to more than two lanes. On the water, the lakefront has shaken free of the development and industrial pockmarks that are common closer to the city. The only real reminder of the major metropolitan area to the west is the Perry Nuclear Power Plant, which spills a constant signal of steam into the sky that's visible far and wide.

North Perry itself is a quaint pinprick on the map, a country village about 900 strong. But what the town lacks in size, it makes up for at the bank: The plant falls within North Perry's borders; thanks to taxes, the village's pockets are about $14 million deep. A neighboring village like Madison, with three times the population, has only a fraction of the cash. And when North Perry decided to build a marina, it could do so completely on its own, without groveling for county or state contributions.

The idea of a North Perry marina had been kicked around for several years, residents say. The stretch of coast in question was in need of a "harbor of refuge," an inlet that acts as an emer-gency safe zone for boaters caught out on the lake in a storm. The original design North Perry had in mind was small and unobtrusive, according to Madison residents Lance Walrath and John Miller. The men own the last two lots on Chapel, meaning their section of beach sits closest to North Perry.

When the idea was floated, the village kept them in the loop, and they had no problems with the original design. But when North Perry Mayor Ed Klco came into office in the mid-2000s, he tapped into a new firm for the project: JJR Engineering out of Wisconsin. Soon, the scope changed. The new plans called for a larger dock, residents-only beach, and larger walls of carefully placed rubble out in the water to protect the beach inside from waves and weather.

Madison residents to the east worried something that size could disrupt their own beaches. And they had good reason: The land had already been labeled by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources as a "coastal erosion zone," a red flag designating fragile conditions. Walrath and Miller began piping up at North Perry council meetings. Worry not, they were told.

"[North Perry] said they had done a sand-flow study that had guaranteed there wouldn't be any problems," Miller recalls.

Walrath remembers assurances from the mayor and council that they would soon bask in more sand than ever before.

With little resistance, the village got its permits approved by the ODNR and the Army Corps of Engineers. Throughout the process, Madison residents were repeatedly told their properties wouldn't be affected, they say. As collateral, the permits even included a provision aiming for "no net loss" — jargon for you won't lose any beach — to the neighboring beaches down-drift from the marina.

Construction began in the spring of 2009. Soon after, John Miller got a taste of what was to come. A specialist with Microsoft who'd lived on the property for more than ten years, Miller was familiar with how the beach would recede in bad weather. But that didn't prep him for what he came home to after a weeklong vacation with his family.

While away, a fierce storm had pummeled the beach, and Miller's stretch, protected by a breakwall, wore the wear and tear.

"When we had left, you could step off my breakwall about six inches to a foot down and you'd be on the beach, and that beach ran out from my breakwall about 40 or 50 feet," he explains.

When Miller returned and stepped up to his breakwall, the sand below was completely gone.

"What used to be a foot step off the end of the breakwall was now a six- or seven-foot drop, because the waves had come in and sourced the sand."

The storm's impact wasn't out of the norm. But what troubled the homeowner was that no sand had flowed back in to replenish the beach as it usually did.

Despite the "No Trespassing" signs, Miller decided to swim over to the North Perry line to see if the sand that should have refilled his beach had built up on the western edge of the marina instead. It was a Sunday, and the construction site was empty. But Miller didn't get far: Once he stepped out of the water and onto the North Perry beach, he was accosted by a North Perry police officer who was guarding the project. Miller tried to explain he was a neighbor, but was ticketed anyway. Eventually, the charges were dropped, but the incidents — both the sand loss and the confrontation — proved to be the strings cueing the overture.

A MAJOR MISCALCULATION

Here are the basic ABCs of waterfront geekdom: Through a layman's eyes, a beach might seem like a stationary hump of land, but it's actually a dynamic gear works that runs on the tick-tock of water flow. Sand is constantly moving in and out on the coast, a movement scientists call "littoral drift." On Lake Erie, that movement happens primarily from west to east.

With constant movement a requisite of the ecosystem, any time a project is built out onto the lake, it's feared the man-made thrust will interrupt that sand flow. Cut off from the usual lifeline, beaches down-drift from the project can erode and wither.

But when North Perry proposed the Townline project, it claimed its marina wouldn't significantly interrupt the littoral drift. As part of the permitting process, JJR commissioned a sand-flow study that determined the design would capture only about 1,000 cubic yards of sand per year. At that rate, the study guessed, the city would only have to dredge the western edge of the marina and redistribute the sand every five years — resulting in the better beaches North Perry officials promised to Madison property owners.

But by the spring of 2010 — the marina's first year — Madison residents saw more evidence that things weren't kosher. The beach at the bottom of Ted Lyndall's stairs had been eaten away to about 10 feet of sand. The breakwall that guarded Miller and Walrath's properties had been undermined: The huge anchor stones worked lose, snapping their metal wiring. By summer, portions of it began to visibly slope down — not exactly what you want from your support wall.

Up the beach, the marina was experiencing first-year problems of its own. More sand than expected was accumulating on the western edge — much more. Rather than the 1,000 cubic yards projected, the North Perry site was collecting so much sand that it was difficult to launch boats. Although the projections said the village would need to dredge the marina once every five years, the area was eventually dredged three times in 2010 alone: a total of almost 20,000 cubic yards over an eight-month span.

"IT WAS AN ERROR"

Mother Nature is the tricky dance partner here; everyone — from North Perry officials to down-drift property owners to government agencies — agrees it's a tough call from year to year whether she's showing up to play nice or get ugly. Madison residents say nature handed off some responsibility to man on this one; North Perry maintains the blame stays with the weather.

"For years, as far back as you can go, the south shoreline of Lake Erie has always eroded. The beach comes and goes," North Perry Mayor Ed Klco says. "[Madison] had a beach there earlier, they lost it. We had a beach, we lost it. That's the way it is."

A coastal resident for more than 20 years, Klco maintains his marina isn't to blame and that the vanishing beach is normal. Madison residents were told the marina would potentially protect their beaches against storms from the west, he says. "I don't know whether it will make them better," he explains. "If that prediction has been made, I don't know who made it.

"It depends on what Mother Nature is going to do," he adds. "I really believe if we had caused those problems, a lawsuit would have been filed already."

The government agencies carefully tiptoe around the question of responsibility. According to Jim Park, with ODNR's office of coastal management, weather has played a role in the erosion — particularly the recent high water levels caused by the wet spring. "Eight inches of water along a thin rocky beach will result in significant beach loss," he says. "This has been happening all up and down the lake this year. Higher water levels change beaches."

But this year's water levels don't explain last year's damage. And the radical miscalculation of sand accumulation invites the question of how the village's engineers could be so far off. "It was an error," Park admits. "That happens."

But there may be more than simple error at play. It's up in the air whether the study North Perry commissioned was even fit to accurately predict the problem. The document itself cops to its own limitations: a summary section obtained by Scene states the study was "intended to provide a good indication of trends in sand movements; it is not, however, a fully movable bed model and as such does not provide detailed predictions of beach slopes, transport rates, and long-term morphological changes. A fully movable bed model was beyond the scope of study."

Both ODNR and the Army Corps of Engineers maintain the study was properly vetted. "The village thought that was accurate, and we had no reason to think it wouldn't be," says Harold Keppner of the Army Corps' regulatory branch. "Obviously, the original prediction for volume was far exceeded in the first year." Nonetheless, the Army Corps has modified the village's permit to require that the marina be dredged multiple times a year, on North Perry's dime. The sand must be redistributed along the Madison shore.

Mayor Klco doesn't blame JJR for the gap between prediction and reality. In fact, although North Perry says Mother Nature's seasonal tango is responsible for the erosion to the east, the village claims the sand build-up to the west is the work of human hands. The theory is outlined in an annual monitoring study by JJR. After acknowledging the accumulation, the document spills considerable ink making the case that the sand resulted from dredging conducted seven miles up the coast in Fairport Harbor. Performed almost yearly to clear shipping lanes, this dredging is often large-scale: In 2009, 87,000 cubic yards were released east of the area near Painesville. JJR's report suggests that this amount found its way into the North Perry marina the following year, accounting for the excess. "That sand is definitely going into our harbor," the mayor confidently says.

That's news to Fairport Harbor. "You're the first time I've ever even heard about it, North Perry having a problem because of our dredging," Fairport Mayor Frank Sarosy tells Scene. "You're talking quite a distance." He adds: "Maybe they should have studied it a little bit more or had their engineers study it more if that was going to happen, but it has nothing to do [with the Fairport dredging]."

The Army Corps also isn't hot to jump aboard the village's explanation for the extra sand. "I've heard that allegation," Keppner says, "but certainly the Corps hasn't acknowledged that that's the cause of the material accumulating in North Perry."

BIGGER PLANS LOOMING

"The village certainly put a lot of pressure on everybody to get this approved," ODNR's Park says of the marina project.

But there was more muscle behind the marina than just a small village with a healthy tax base. North Perry footed the bill, and only its residents use the structure; Townline Park, however, is not a stand-alone project but part of a county-wide coastal rethink.

In 2005, Lake County released its Coastal Development Plan. The 51-page document, also created by JJR, was the brainchild of a committee of county heavyweights that spells out a big-picture plan for redesigning the coastline in ways that would create more public space and protect the area from erosion. Zeroing in on the North Perry-Madison coast, the document dreams up a renovation that begins in Townline Park and moves east, past the Madison properties, down the coast to Stanton Park. On paper, a chain of barrier walls stands between the two parks, shielding the fuller beaches that would result.

Such well-intended and -financed studies usually are doomed to either a quiet death on the shelf or heavy rotation among a politico's talking points. But the first piece of this puzzle — the North Perry marina — has jumped off the drawing board, and that has Madison residents worried. How, they're wondering, will their slice of coastal bliss fit into the county's vision? To them, it seems Lake County is making plans for what to do with their property — plans they had little input in.

But one of the plan's main backers says down-drift property owners should see the coastal plan not as a nefarious master blueprint, but as the solution to their current problem. As chairman of the Lake County Port Authority, Harry Allen sat on the coastal plan committee. He also lives two houses down from the North Perry marina project, and like a good neighbor, he feels for the Madison residents.

"I know if my beach eroded very badly, I would look to whatever changed recently, irrespective of the comings and goings of the situation we've seen over the years," he says. "But the majority of the erosion problems [in Madison] are not caused by that structure."

According to Allen, the Lake County coastline has always been unstable. The current erosion in Madison, regardless of cause, is a case in point. He says such damage can be mitigated by, say, a series of barrier walls between Townline and Stanton parks, which would block the force of incoming waves and protect the sand inside. In other words: exactly what's proposed in the coastal plan.

"At the end of the day, we have what we have," Allen says. "And we've got to be focused on mitigating the impact either up- or downstream." He couches his argument in terms of the Greater Good: "The residents of Northeast Ohio want lakefront improvements, it's going to happen," he says, adding that for Lake County to position itself for investment down the line, it needs to secure the beaches. The half-dozen improvement projects outlined in the coastal plan are essential to that effort, including barrier walls along the Madison coast.

"We're all driving for that ideal world where everybody will have an improved situation," Allen claims.

DRIFTING AWAY

"That would be great, but not everyone has a couple million dollars lying around," John Miller retorts. He's standing on the bluff overlooking his beach, staring out at the water where the Lake County coastal plan has penciled in a barrier wall. It's late afternoon, the sun's prepping for its long walk offstage; below, the beach is empty except for the wave action. To the west, the metal docks and swept beach of Townline Park are also bare.

Barrier walls would protect the Madison beaches, but the question of price is relevant. Because the properties are private, public dollars aren't in play; the Lake County Port Authority has a program through which private owners can borrow money against their property for improvements — an idea that angers most of the down-drift owners operating on limited budgets.

Limited funding may also hold up their other option: legal action. The owners have spoken with lawyers about taking on North Perry, but they haven't hired one yet.

The current solutions are small change. The Army Corps still requires the village to dredge the marina throughout the year and redistribute the sand so that it flows back into the down-drift properties. The Corps is conducting a survey to see whether or not the dredged sand is actually making it to the Madison shore. If not, the village may be required to truck the sand directly onto the beach — a costlier endeavor.

Which leaves the property owners' future plans stuck in traffic. As they meet together and heft around the options, Miller, Lyndall, and the others still seem stunned they ended up here in the first place. In part, that's because they're worried about what might come next if the problem isn't addressed soon. After the beaches, the lake erosion won't stop. The bluff they sleep on every night could be next.

"You save all your life, work hard to get to a point where you can enjoy it," Miller says, his voice still sagging with disbelief. "And then it gets taken away from you."

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