Planners and public safety officials unite to fight Phragmites

By R. Donald Wortman, AICP, PLA, PCP

Kevin Walters, MI DEQ

This article was originally published in the Michigan Association of Planning’s magazine. This is the type of timely information you receive when you become a member of MAP.

Over the years, Michigan has been beset with the management of invasive species. We have witnessed the intrusion of unwanted guests such as purple loosestrife, zebra mussels and emerald ash borer. Now a new invasive is intruding on our natural resources and ecosystems with far reaching impacts that goes beyond the natural environment but also impacts local municipalities and community planning. This culprit is Phragmites (Phragmites australis).

Phragmites spreads quickly either by dispersed seed or by roots (stolons and rhizomes). Individual stands of Phragmites can grow to be over 15 feet high and can quickly choke out native species. While it is commonly seen within roadside ditches and waterfront areas, Phragmites is adaptable and can flourish even in upland areas with adequate soil moisture.

The Lake St. Clair watershed contains more than 3,500 acres of Phragmites, with much more acreage state wide. The most common management technique for removal is herbicide application, although prescribed fire and mechanical removal can also be employed. The best times to apply herbicide are in late summer or early fall when the seed heads are visible.

This aggressive and fast growing invasive harms local communities and worries planners. Stormwater management systems including retention ponds and drainage systems are being choked out by the invasive. Waterfront homes have lost views of lakes and rivers, reducing property values. During dry periods, stands of Phragmites have caught fire and threatened public safety.

In Auburn Hills, a Phragmites fire consumed more than 100 acres, threatened a number of homes and temporarily shut down local roads. In St. Clair County, the Clay Township fire chief reports that there have been a number of Phragmites-related structure fires that have caused damage to homes and garages. Overhead utility lines including electrical, cable, and telephone service have been damaged by Phragmites fires within utility easements.

In addition to fire safety issues, thick patches of Phragmites growing in roadside ditches impair visibility at road intersections cause traffic accidents. Roadside Phragmites growth has forced additional maintenance costs for road commissions and DPW crews for mowing and ditch maintenance along major roadways.

The problems attributed to Phragmites have gone beyond the usual impacts to ecosystems and have affected municipalities and raised local concerns regarding health, safety and welfare. Planners are recognizing the need for a response to these problems and are developing new techniques and local regulations for the management of Phragmites.

Regional and statewide organizations are mobilizing to control Phragmites. The MDNR, MDEQ and the Michigan Department of Agriculture Rural Development have initiated statewide management plans as well as grant programs to assist local communities in their management of Phragmites. The Great Lakes Commission and the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative are also actively involved on an international level with efforts involving the entire Great Lakes basin.

At the regional level, SEMCOG has promoted Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMA) to plan, strategize and secure funding for the control of Phragmites. The Lake St. Clair CISMA and the Oakland County CISMA have applied for grants and have been involved in Phragmites management on a regional basis that includes collaboration with numerous municipalities.

The MDEQ requires permits for chemical treatment along inland lakes, ponds, rivers or regulated wetlands. Federal permits are required along Great Lakes coastal areas. Some communities such as Orion Township and Clay Township have applied for and received township-wide MDEQ permits. This has helped to streamline the permitting process for individuals who are managing Phragmites on private property.

On a municipal level, a number of communities have also tried to address the problem through local regulations, planning and zoning. Clay Township in St. Clair County has been at the forefront of voluntary efforts, education and local permitting. The township has championed a voluntary approach for the management of Phragmites, helping with MDNR permitting and herbicide acquisition. The township also educates residents on proper management techniques.

Orion Township in Oakland County has adopted a Phragmites control ordinance which establishes procedures for identifying hazardous conditions, and possible assessment to the property owner for treatment. The ordinance allows the township to declare a hazardous condition where there are concerns for public health and safety arising from traffic safety (intersection visibility), fire or impediments to storm water flow. In northern Michigan, Emmet County, Acme Township and Peaine Township have also adopted local ordinances for the control and management of Phragmites.

On a state level, PA 359 of 1941, Noxious Weeds, authorizes municipalities to control and eradicate noxious weeds. The act also allows a community to adopt ordinances requiring the removal of a noxious weeds and lets a municipality charge the costs of removal to a property owner. The statute establishes procedures for notification and public hearing.

In addition to PA 359 of 1941, the state construction code and section 302 of the international property maintenance code also allows code enforcement officials to order the removal of noxious weeds such as Phragmites. The international fire code authorizes removing fire hazards, which may be necessitated where Phragmites is in close proximity to structures.

So what can planners do to help manage Phragmites? They can adopt local ordinances, participate in Cooperative Invasive Species Management Areas (CISMA) and offer public education. Examples of local ordinances that can be adopted or amended to manage the spread of Phragmites and other noxious weeds are detailed below:

Local Ordinances

Phragmites control ordinances –The ordinance might call for an inventory of Phragmites growth areas and an annual report, identification of which areas are threats to public safety, notification to property owners and public hearing and a mandate for treatment and/or assessment.

Noxious weed ordinance – Many communities already have a noxious weed ordinance which identifies noxious weeds and establishes abatement procedures. Phragmites should be listed as a noxious weed and when public safety issues emerge, the costs for abatement can be passed on to property owners.

Stormwater management ordinances – Communities may modify their stormwater regulations to address the problem of Phragmites growth which chokes out and impedes stormwater flow and retention. The ordinance can require that property owners submit plans for the removal and control of Phragmites. Shelby Township in Macomb County requires a stormwater maintenance agreement which requires long term management and removal of Phragmites from stormwater systems.

Zoning ordinance – The zoning ordinance can also be modified to manage Phragmites. The site plan review process can require that Phragmites be identified and that site plans stipulate for the removal and control of the weed. Planned Unit Development (PUD) sections of a zoning ordinance can identify Phragmites removal as a community benefit. Developers may get credit for voluntarily offering to remove Phragmites in a conditional rezoning.

The explosive growth of Phragmites in Michigan poses new problems for planners and public safety officials throughout the state of Michigan. Municipalities will have to find ways to control Phragmites as the invasive continues to affect property values, fire safety, traffic safety and stormwater management. These threats, however, can be minimized by local efforts which include a combination of education, voluntary programs, and local ordinances requiring eradication of this invasive plant.

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