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Nov. 18, 2019
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Shoreline management: Paperwork and people

Lakeside News Senior Reporter Pam Keene spent a recent Tuesday with Corps of Engineers shoreline management staff. Her assignment: learn about these rangers’ duties, how they balance their work to serve the public while protecting the shorelines of Lake Lanier; and tell the story of these rangers’ daily jobs. Here is her report.
 
By Pamela A. Keene 
 
Shoreline management ranger Corbin Martin sums it up succinctly: “In reality, we’re managing one of the largest natural areas of public property in Georgia. As such, it is our responsibility to manage and protect the shoreline and the water quality of Lake Lanier for millions, including the homeowners who live here, the people downstream who benefit from the lake, and the people who visit here. We realize that many people don’t look at it this way, but if they did, they’d have a better understanding of what we do and why.”
 
The 11-member Shoreline Management team balances time between site visits to renew dock permits and reviewing property modifications to responding to dozens of phone calls and even more emails daily. Add the required paperwork and documentation that accompanies each contact and it’s a wonder that that there aren’t more rangers and support personnel on staff to accomplish the work.
 
Many of the Corps’ rangers and staff formerly served in the military, worked in law enforcement or emergency services. Martin was a police officer for the federal government in Mayport and worked in several Florida police departments before joining the Corps of Engineers. He also served five years in the U.S. Navy.
 
Managing thousands of requests, issues and permits
Emails and phone calls are the first points of contact for many residents who reach out to Shoreline Management. Some come to individual rangers; others – the majority – are the responsibility of one full-time park ranger, currently Mark Millwood, who works the Shoreline Help Desk. Located just inside the reception area at the Corps’ offices off Buford Dam, Millwood meets with walk-in visitors requesting permit information, a site visit for a change of ownership, property modifications or other issues, and people with general questions. 
 
Millwood served in the Air Force and as a federal employee working at the Federal Law Enforcement Academy before joining the Corps. “Since the dock fee increase was announced, that’s been the biggest source of calls and emails,” Millwood said. “Aside from shifting the fees from our line-item budget, the amount basically costs about as much as five years’ worth of Netflix service. I had a caller on the line a couple of weeks ago, and once I compared the two – five years to five years – he got it.”
Millwood triages emails and phone calls, assigning them to the proper shoreline ranger. He also initiates any paperwork associated with dock renewals and property modifications. 
 
The lake is currently divided into four areas; two more shoreline rangers were recently added, and the lake is being separated into six. “This will help us be more responsive to homeowners because we’ll each be covering a smaller area,” he said. “Right now, each of our four shoreline rangers is responsible for managing about 2,500 dock permits. This might include renewals, request for dock modifications such as larger docks or major repairs, plus changes to the Corps-managed shoreline adjacent to their property, such as installing steps or walkways.”
 
Timber trespass a major issue
Martin said that timber trespass – people cutting down trees, clearing underbrush or limbing trees on public lands – is where most of the shoreline rangers spend their time. Although the boundaries of the Corps-managed lands are clearly marked, it seems some homeowners sometimes think that they are allowed to do certain things on those adjacent lands. 
 
To non-schooled observers, Corps’ boundaries may look to be random, but they are not. The goal was to purchase land at 1085 feet above mean sea level, so in the late 1940s and early 1950s, aerial surveys were used to identify tracts of land to purchase. When the actual purchases took place, some of the tracts were below 1085 and others were partially above 1085.
 
The laws about timber trespass and property modifications are clear. First and foremost, anyone considering any modification on Corps-managed property must contact the Corps and have a site visit. When dock permits are renewed or a change of ownership is executed, the permittees sign agreements that they acknowledge the rules, regulations and policies of the Corps.
 
Here’s an example: Martin went out to meet with a homeowner who wants to build a larger dock. As they walked together toward the lake, the homeowner pointed out some earlier modifications from a previous visit. The person’s deck encroached partially across the boundary and had been adjusted property. They also talked about a couple of trees – one that had fallen on Corps-managed land and another that was leaning toward the house. The fallen tree needed to be laid down flat; the homeowner agreed. As for the leaning tree, Martin made notes to issue a permit for it to be removed by the homeowner.  “If you’re in doubt, contact us,” Martin said. “We’ll come out and meet with the homeowner and, if needed, may issue a permit.”
 
Here’s what happens when a property owner proceeds on his own, removing trees on Corps-managed land. “This may result in fines, restitution and possible legal action,” Martin said. “We go out to the site, evaluate the damages, calculate the restitution, and determine what is required to restore the area. Two bright-yellow signs are posted on Corps property, one facing the lake and the other facing the  house. The property owner has two years to complete the restoration.”
 
Restoration involves replacing trees that were removed. The trees must be at least two inches in diameter and must be native species. “Planting the replacement trees may reduce the restitution,” Martin said. “Removing trees jeopardizes the health and future of the lake and we take timber trespasses very seriously.” 
 
Technology replaces long-form paperwork
As one of the largest Corps projects in the nation, Lanier often leads the way for changes that have saved taxpayer dollars, improved processes and addressed safety issues. As with the elimination of cash at Corps’ parks, a pilot program developed by Park Operations, and the establishment of the Volunteer Village by the late Corps Project Operations Manager Erwin Topper, shoreline operations staff at Lanier piloted digitizing their work flow. 
 
“In September 2017, our shoreline management program was among the first in the nation to go live with a new database program to complete work orders and issue permits,” Martin said. “And now all our rangers have 2-in-1 laptops they can use in the office and take into the field. We have access to the documentation we need. It saves time and makes doing our jobs more efficient.” 
 
The Corps maintains a database of all permits, transactions and information. Every time an action takes place, it’s recorded. It’s made keeping track of and managing thousands of communications with homeowners easier.
 
“It’s really quite simple in many cases,” Martin said. “The goal here is to protect and preserve Lake Lanier, its natural resources and the public lands surrounding it for future generations. With 692 miles of shoreline and 39,000 acres of water, we have a job to do and a great responsibility to fulfill for the public. We certainly appreciate it when we have the support and understanding of the homeowners around the lake and the people who the lake.”

Posted online 10/29/19
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