SILVER LAKE, MICH. - Despite about 20 summers of scooping back sand, the Dressler family has never seen their lakeside home this close to doom.
A towering, creeping sand mountain that swallowed several cottages in the 1960s casts a menacing shadow over the house on this western Michigan lake, about an hour's drive north of Grand Rapids. Last winter, it destroyed the cottage the family owned next door.
As eastward winds from Lake Michigan push the dune farther into the neighborhood, a growing beach spreads through the yards of more than a dozen nearby cottages — each of which could be threatened if the winds continue in this direction.
Now, the state of Michigan has ordered the Dresslers to stop their latest effort to save the remaining summer home from destruction: The sand is protected as a "critical dune area," so trucking it away is forbidden.
"They're killing us," said David Dressler, 58. "I'm so pissed off right now, I'm beyond words."
Silver Lake State Park attracts about 850,000 visitors annually with 1,600 acres of magnificent sand dunes near Lake Michigan. It's the only place in the state where you can ride off-road vehicles over dunes.
But living next to the dunes means the threat of a natural hazard. Here, an unfortunate wind pattern is all it takes to destroy a subdivision.
Oceana County Commissioner Larry Byl owns property on the nearby shore of Lake Michigan and said he's well-aware that invading water could ruin his cabin.
The Dresslers face a similar reality with sand. But Byl said they still should have a right to protect their property.
"I find it ironic that the state seeks to protect all of the dunes and not let a property owner protect their structure... But on the other hand, the state feels it's fine to have dune buggies and quad-runners run all over the dunes," he said.
'Family roots up in Michigan'
Dressler always knew about the sand's potential. He grew up visiting Silver Lake, and he recalls seeing nearby abandoned homes ready to be buried in the early 1970s.
"My dad used to always say, 'Well, most people have to mow their lawn. We have to move a little bit of sand, so it kind of works out the same,'" he said. "In the beginning, we really didn't have to move much at all."
Roughly 10 years ago, Dressler said you could look out from the home's small lighthouse tower and see Lake Michigan a mile west. Today, it's a wall of sand the family estimates to be between 80 and 150 feet high.
For many years, the wind blew the sand in a less-threatening direction, and family members used a backhoe to push it away. But the dune has grown and is advancing much more quickly, Dressler said.
"By winter, we will have lost the other house," he said. And they aren't getting any help from insurance policies "because it's Mother Nature — it's an act-of-God kind of thing, supposedly," he said.
Most of the year, he and his wife, Sue, live in the western Chicago suburbs, where he's a custom home builder. They have four kids, and the two-bedroom cottage that was lost last winter previously belonged to his father. They have a garage full of dune buggies, and they hope to one day host their grandchildren at the remaining home.
"We're just a family trying to preserve our cottage, our family roots up in Michigan," Dressler said. "And it's just getting to be such an emotional drain — not to mention a financial drain. And to have to fight everybody to get what is common sense, I don’t know how much more we can take."
Jeff Theodore, 58, of Fernandina Beach, Fla., relaxed on the beach with friends and family on July 31, within sight of the bulldozer.
He co-owned one of the nearby cottages in the 1990s, when he lived closer. Now he uses it as a vacation rental. When purchasing the property, he recalled that the Dresslers tended the buffer between them and the dune, he said.
"We knew that they had a nice cottage," Theodore said. "We heard they were moving sand out, and that gave us a comfort level."
When the Dresslers' cottage was destroyed, they cleared out the debris, and sand took over the space. The remaining house — which they later bought and have upgraded — is bigger, about three bedrooms with a four-car garage to store the dune buggies. But there was a high sentimental value on the small cottage his father owned.
"It hurt a lot," David Dressler said. "It's strange not having it here, because I spent a childhood being there. And to see it gone, I feel like part of me got taken away."
Centuries of destruction
The idea of a huge mound of sand destroying houses isn't shocking to the locals at Silver Lake. An apple orchard, multiple homes and a cemetery are among the things buried in the dunes over hundreds of years.
The Dresslers have a black-and-white photo from the 1970s of several cottages along the beach that used to separate theirs from the dune. As it advanced, the structures were either destroyed or moved.
"There were a few cottages that were actually moved in wintertime," Byl said, adding that with the lake frozen, the homes were "jacked up and moved to the safe side of the lake."
Building or altering a structure — or even improvements to driveways or fences — in a "critical dune area" now requires a special permit through the state. The same applies to excavating large amounts of sand. About 74,000 of the state's estimated 225,000 acres of dunes are deemed critical, said Michigan DEQ spokeswoman Melody Kindraka.
The "critical dune area" designation dates to 1989 and applies to dunes deemed to be "a unique, irreplaceable and fragile resource" providing recreational, economic, scientific and other benefits.
Kindraka said critical dune area permits have been issued at least twice in the Silver Lake area in the past few years.
A photo of a two-story Silver Lake house mostly engulfed in sand was published in the Dec. 28, 1968, edition of the Free Press. The accompanying story from the Associated Press describes circumstances like what the Dresslers face.
The state park manager at the time said the dunes had buried multiple cottages and an apple orchard in the preceding 50 years. A General Management Plan dated March 2012 from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reports that the orchard's trees were still visible for some years, and that state park staff in 1978 removed a homestead from the dunes because it was decaying and people had vandalized it.
A Sisyphean task
The dune invading the Dresslers' property is "going to win," with no real options to stop it, said Ron Olson, chief of Parks and Recreation for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
"Unfortunately, homes and dwellings were built in some places that they shouldn't have been built," he said.
But like the Sisyphus character of Greek mythology, the Dressler family continues the virtually futile task — spending as much as $200,000 over the years to move sand.On the morning of July 31, people visiting the dunes paused to watch a big, yellow bulldozer haul sand to a dump truck next to the house.
"This is the first time we've ever hauled sand away," Sue Dressler, David's wife, said as they sat on the home's backyard deck. "We've always pushed it back."
They say the sand being moved is all on their property, and they're still paying property taxes on the lot the dune now occupies in place of the destroyed cottage.
Volunteers, neighbors and an online fundraiser helped support their effort to move away dozens of loads of sand. In a posting on the GoFundMe fundraiser website, the Dresslers report moving 43, 25-cubic-yard loads in one day. David Dressler said a local golf course has been among the recipients of sand.
"If you drive around, there's kids' sandboxes and somebody's garden around their house, and just — you look around town, it's kind of all over," David Dressler said. "It's kind of neat."
But that's not how the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality sees it. Sue Dressler said that on Aug. 3, the department sent an e-mail ordering the operation to a halt. They must have a permit, which the Dresslers had obtained in previous years when pushing the sand back — but in this case, they've been taking sand away.
Kindraka told the Free Press the permit process is intended to maintain the dune while "also accounting for the protection of health and human safety of the homes that are there."
"So this is about getting a permit with the homeowner to make sure they can protect their home while we can also maintain the resources of a critical dune," Kindraka said.
Sue Dressler said they've paid the state $1,300 to apply for and $2,000 to secure a special-exception permit, in essence, "to charge me to take the sand off my property that's coming from their lot."
She said requirements to have architectural drawings, cubic-yard estimates and more are delaying their application.
They aren't giving up yet.
"I used to always say, 'I'll never let Mother Nature win out,' but she kind of proved to me that it's a force to be reckoned with," David Dressler said. "You can't fight it, at some point in time. But we're doing our best."
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Contact Robert Allen: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @rallenMI.
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