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What are Michigan’s Critical Dune Areas? A Guide for Home Buyers & Sellers

Posted by Michigan Lifestyle Properties on April 18, 2017

Living on the shores of Lake Michigan is one of the best places in the world you could be. Spectacular water views, sand dunes, and a lakeshore that runs farther than the eye can see offers beauty and recreation that many of us dream of.

But if you’re interested in buying a home on Lake Michigan, you may come across restrictions or limitations because of Michigan’s Critical Dune Area.

In Michigan there are approximately 225,000 acres of dunes, of which approximately 74,000 acres were designated as Critical Dune Areas (CDAs) in 1989. Critical dune areas represent the tallest and most spectacular dunes along Lake Michigan’s shoreline in the lower and upper peninsulas, and the shores of Lake Superior. CDAs include public lands and private properties where developmental, silvicultural and recreational activities are currently regulated by Part 353, Sand Dunes Protection and Management, of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA), 1994 PA 451 as amended. The statute was recently amended on August 7, 2012.

The purpose of the statute is to balance for present and future generations the benefits of protecting, preserving, restoring, and enhancing the diversity, quality, functions, and values of the state’s critical dunes with the benefits of economic development and multiple human uses of the critical dunes, and the benefits of public access to and enjoyment of the critical dunes. (Source:

Michigan’s sand dunes are a unique natural resource of global significance. Together, they represent the largest collection of fresh water dunes in the world and support numerous threatened and endangered plant and animal species. Their combination of topography, plant life and climate are unique to Michigan. The dunes support a wide diversity of habitats ranging from temperate forest land, to the harsh environment of the open dunes, to quiet ponds tucked between the dunes that are teeming with wildlife.

It’s understandable that we want to protect and preserve the dunes for the future. But this also means that purchasing and owning property connected to the shoreline can come with some unique restrictions.

Currently, the Critical Dune Area act requires a permit for “those activities which significantly alter the physical characteristics of a CDA or for a contour change in a CDA”. A few examples of when a permit is typically required include; the construction of a house or garage, building a road or driveway, installing a septic system, installing retaining walls, and sand removal. The permit application fee varies between $150 and $4,000.

Another specific limitation of the act to be aware of is that structures are prohibited on the first lakeward facing slope of a critical dune area.

Some Critical Dune Areas are also in High Risk Erosion Areas, where the shoreline is receding at a rate of one foot or greater per year, and construction projects in those areas will have additional review requirements.

Permitting is usually done by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, though there are three communities in the state that administer the program through their own local ordinances – the City of Bridgman, Beaver Island, and Pere Marquette Township.

As a result, you should be aware that the permitting and construction process can be expensive, time consuming and may end up limiting or affecting your intended use. Because of these restrictions, lakefront property that is not in a critical dune area may often be valued substantially higher than property located within a critical dune area.

When you are ready to buy your dream Lake Michigan beachfront home, you’ll have the best experience when you work with an experienced Realtor, who understands the unique requirements of CDA property, and who can help you navigate the possibilities of your ideal property.

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