Private Frontiers

From a pristine lake fed by a waterfall, stream and fast-flowing spring to rugged timberland fringing the Huron Mountains, grand slices of Michigan sweeping the Great Lakes and Upper Peninsula offer unique opportunities for rest and recreation.
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Great Lakes
Photography Courtesy of Dick Huey

In vast, unbroken expanses of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula — regions dominated by forests, waterfalls and beaches of boulders and sand — there are areas where trees have grown for hundreds of years and lakes where native northern pike go unmolested. There are waters where loons nest peacefully and where the dramatic blue-flag iris grows along marsh edges and streams in radiant abundance.

Ray Johnson was looking for just that kind of property. He found it in 2006 and purchased 800 forest acres, a mile of trout stream and an entire 40-acre lake west of Marquette in the shadow of the Huron Mountains. Johnson is one of an increasing number of buyers who are finding private getaways in the wilds of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula where the availability of magnificent tracts of land has been growing.

Upper Peninsula Great Lakes
Photography Courtesy of Dick Huey

“I was looking for a retreat, something unique and interesting,” said Johnson, who resides in St. Charles, Ill. with his wife. The couple built a 1,800-square-foot Greene & Greene-styled timber-frame home on their U. P. property with its old growth forests and quiet, scenic waters. “I wanted wilderness and wild lands without the development I saw in northern Wisconsin. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had that and was within striking distance of Chicago. It was like a frontier in many ways.”

In this region of the state renowned for timber and mining and independent spirits who settled and reside there, private “frontier” properties are, indeed, embedded within majestic forests and along stretches of unspoiled Great Lake shoreline. Often, these properties are handed down from generation to generation before — for one reason or another — they end up on the market.

Consider Goose Lake in Marquette County: The 107-acre private lake and nearby 47-acre Twin Lake are both located on 1,571.7 acres, lands where moose and deer roam and the fishing is excellent. Goose Lake is the largest whole private lake currently available in single ownership in Michigan, according to Dick Huey, owner of Huey Real Estate LLC, a Marquette brokerage that deals in private nature reserves and high-end, remote waterfront properties.

Great Lakes views
“I was looking for a retreat, something unique and interesting. I wanted wilderness and wild lands without the development I saw in northern Wisconsin. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had that and was within striking distance of Chicago.” — Ray Johnson

“People’s needs change,” Huey explains. “There are people who need to sell their property because of the things that happen: someone dies or a job move to California. A perfect fit 10 years ago may not be a fit now.”

Huey’s listings include a two-mile isolated stretch of beach on Lake Superior and an assortment of private lakes and wild lands. These properties often become private retreats. The holdings, he says, appeal to discerning clients who seek privacy and natural surroundings. Their interests may include hunting, fishing and canoeing or simply communing with nature, family and friends.

Silver Lake is another example. The 23-acre private lake, situated a half-mile long in 350 acres of timberland, comes complete with a natural spring, stream and seasonal waterfall. White trillium flowers grow thick here in spring. It’s a serene place where sandhill cranes nest and silence just might be cut by the screech of ospreys, but it’s also less than a 30-minute drive from Marquette, a lively cultural center with an airport, shopping and established university town vibe. That blend of features and amenities is what buyers often come seeking, according to Huey.

Upper Peninsula animals
Photography Courtesy of Dick Huey; Thinkstock/ James Phelps (left, center)

“The U.P. is a bit of a frontier. I have eight private lakes listed. And, it is probably the only place in the country where you can do that,” observes Huey. “They are rare anywhere else. The lands either get subdivided, used up or someone else already owns them.”

Real estate market conditions now favor the buyer, he adds. The economic uncertainties of the 2008 recession have diminished and prospective buyers are feeling more confident. An increasing number of big properties are coming up for sale and buyers appear more serious about purchasing.

“It’s a good time to buy,” says Huey, a commercial broker (CCIM) who in 1991 moved to the U.P., where he decided to develop a portfolio of private wild lands and waterfront properties. “A typical whole private lake in 2000 would have cost about a million dollars. And, after the last seven years, it costs about the same. In 2005, I would have said $1.5, but the price of real estate has dropped.”

It’s a serene place where sandhill cranes nest and silence just might be cut by the screech of ospreys, but it’s also less than a 30-minute drive from Marquette, a lively cultural center with an airport, shopping and established university town vibe.

Keepers of the Land

A wish for privacy and someplace wild is a common thread among frontier property buyers. Despite their diverse backgrounds, many would like to preserve the land for future generations. They may, however, be unfamiliar with the options they have.

There are a variety of resources they can turn to for counsel if land stewardship is of interest. They include private environmental consultants, land conservancies, county conservation districts, private consulting foresters and state programs that can aid with wildlife or forest planning.

“Conservation districts can be very helpful. They are a great first stop,” says Tina Hall, the director of land resources for The Nature Conservancy of Michigan.  “They are great for one-stop shopping. The districts can go through the various programs and incentive grants that are available.”

Those may include cost-share programs for writing forest management plans or technical advice about invasive species and wetland and lake management, among other things. Hall’s organization has worked with some of Huey’s clients to develop conservation easements — a legal agreement that restricts certain types of development on properties. The easements are recognized by the Internal Revenue Service and can offer tax advantages.

The U.P. is a bit of a frontier. I have eight private lakes listed. And, it is probably the only place in the country where you can do that. They are rare anywhere else. The lands either get subdivided, used up or someone else already owns them.
— Dick Huey

Conservation easements can be developed with any land trust in the state. The trust holds certain development rights in perpetuity while the landowner may receive tax breaks for any decline in property value that may be caused from limiting development.

“You might buy a 1,000-acre private lake property you want to be a legacy, but the grandkids 100 years from now may want to cut it up,” Hall explains. “With a conservation easement you know going into the future it will not change. It isn’t the tool to use for someone who wants total liquidity, but if the property owner has a conservation vision and wants the property to stay the same, they can dictate, for instance, that a grandson can build on a part of the property.”

Managing lands for whitetail deer or grouse or other birds and wildlife is something the Michigan Department of Natural Resources can assist with, according to Mark Sargent, the agency’s private lands program coordinator. The Michigan DNR has four private lands biologists available who provide technical and other support to landowners who want to improve wildlife populations. The agency also works cooperatively with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development to fund a number of foresters around the state who work for county conservation districts.

“We can always provide landowners with technical expertise and give them information or we may recommend other programs and partners,” Sargent notes. “They could be federal state or non-profit groups.”

Private environmental consulting firms can also help. Johnson shares he approached development on his property adhering foremost to the medical maxim:  “First, Do No Harm.” Having worked as land surveyor in the Chicago area, he was well aware of the wetlands and natural areas that have been destroyed around the Windy City.

To protect his investment, Johnson contracted with Whitewater Associates in Amasa, Mich., an environmental engineering firm that developed a plan for enhancing the property’s natural features. Among other things, the work involved planting 40,000 native trees and managing the aquatic vegetation in the lake. Johnson also was careful to build within the footprint of the old residence. He sought keep the land natural and wild.

“It’s a protected reserve. I do not hunt, but I love to fish and get outdoors,” Johnson explains. “Most U.P. forests have been fooled with in one way or another going back to the Great White Pine Cut. What interested me are the older growth trees. I have trees that are 300 years old.

“I was also looking for a whole private lake that I would control and a true wilderness feeling,” he shares. “The Upper Peninsula is one of the few places in the lower 48 states that I could find it.”


Award-winning writer Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.

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