Stories of catharsis, altruism and changed property values following 2015 megastorm

By Jacob Wheeler
Sun editor

Where were you when the storm arrived?

Leelanau County residents and those visiting our shores a year ago definitely know the answer to that question. Where they took shelter, what they saw, and how they helped others in the minutes, hours and days after the megastorm pummeled Glen Arbor and the Sleeping Bear Dunes minutes after 4 p.m. last August 2 is now part of our personal narrative.

We’ll share the stories with grandchildren, with co-workers and with strangers at cocktail parties, along with the dramatic facts: the 100 mile-per-hour “wind shear”, which was at first mistaken for a tornado, leveled thousands of hardwood trees, nearly killed people (but did not), blocked most roads to Glen Arbor, and closed portions of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and Glen Arbor’s business district for almost a week — in the height of the tourism season.

For some, the aftermath of the storm, and the massacre of trees it caused, prompted an existential crisis. Debbie Rettke, who owns Duneswood Resort on M-109 near the Sleeping Bear Dune Climb, said she was heartbroken after losing more than 200 beloved, mature trees on her property — including those adored by her late mother, Joanne. “We were all connected to those trees,” she said. “It was like losing part of the family, or losing a way of life.” Debbie admitted she considered selling the resort after the storm.

Amazingly, the Peace Pole near the bonfire circle survived though trees fell all around it. She also found solace when she realized that the favorite swing her mother had hung between two hardwood trees was untouched and now visible from the motel. “Now we have an amazing view of the sand dunes, and we can see the stars at night,” she added.

For others, the storm turned a typical busy August workday into an opportunity to help others in need. On the Narrows Marina became a point of transit for more than a dozen suitcase-toting residents of Big Glen Lake whose road access to the outside world was severed. The storm made Dunn’s Farm Road and Northwood Drive impassible, so the marina sent boats to ferry people between their cottages and the Narrows Bridge.

“We spread the word on Facebook to let people know we had boats that could shuttle them,” said Marcie Ferris, former owner of On the Narrows who managed the marina last summer for the McCahill family. “We were also the only source of gasoline for people needing to fill up their chainsaws. People just came together. This has always been the safe port in a storm.”

One Colorado man who was wounded when a tree fell on his car on Dunn’s Farm Road was taken by stretcher and pontoon boat, to the marina, where an ambulance met him and took him to Munson Medical Center in Traverse City. Meanwhile, in Glen Arbor, chef Randy Chamberlain closed Blu and donated his gourmet food to stranded people overnighting in the Township Hall — the town’s emergency shelter.

For the local real estate market, the storm presented both hurdles and opportunities. Some property owners in the storm’s path who wanted to sell had to put their plans on the backburner for many weeks, take their home off the market and deal with dozens of fallen trees on their house, automobile or yard. To the chagrin of many, insurance didn’t cover the latter.

“People who had out-of-pocket money to clean up (their yards) are in good shape now,” said realtor John Martin. “But for others it’s a hardship.”

The storm took some properties off the market that haven’t yet returned, and Martin hypothesized that the smaller supply could increase home values. But, in general, he doesn’t think that the decimation of trees has hurt property values.

“Some property owners think their value diminished because of lack of trees, but we haven’t seen that,” said Martin. “If you own a lot in Glen Arbor, the storm came through and dropped root balls and trees. You’re gonna have to clean it up and make the property look nicer. Some of these properties were over-treed anyway, and now they have sunlight.”

“In the big picture, the storm won’t have a significant economy impact on real estate.”

Other realtors echoed a similar sentiment. According to Jody Arendale, one of Century 21 Northland Vacation Rentals’ rental properties on Northwood Drive suffered a significant loss of trees. “But our returning guests have all commented on how bright and airy the place feels now, with more room to park cars and boat trailers,” said Arendale. “So not all bad news. Life goes on and you make the best of it.”

Despite the storm, business is booming, particularly for Rob Serbin, who closed on six sales in one week during the typically quiet month of December. Ron Raymond, his colleague at Serbin Real Estate, is on track for his best year ever. Ditto at LVR Realty.

“Things are jamming,” said Serbin. “The storm, while devastating, has not dampened interest in the area.”

The storm definitely changed the scenery and listing price for one house that was on the market last Aug. 2. Cynthia Buit, who owned the “round house” near the Foothills Motel & Café on Dunn’s Farm Road in Burdickville, lost 38 mature trees on her property; they destroyed the back of her garage and one corner of her house and damaged her Cadillac. Only three trees remained standing after the storm. The maelstrom caused $100,000 in total damage, only 60 percent of which was covered by her insurance company. Luckily, Buit had the money to pay the other $40,000 out of pocket. She took her house off the market, added a new roof and planted six evergreen trees along the roadside, and relisted it in March 2016 for $259,900 — $15,000 less than its value in October 2014. As of press time, the round house is under contract to sell in late July.

“It’s not a house in the woods anymore,” said Buit. “Now we can see Big Glen Lake and neighboring houses. Before you couldn’t.”

But it’s unclear whether the storm directly affected the home’s market value. Buit, who is 68, said she accepted a slightly lower price because she is tired of Michigan winters and wants to move to the Texas hill country. She thinks the new roof, the manicured lawn and the fresh landscaping may actually help the long-term value of this home — to say nothing of the new views of Big Glen Lake.

It’s possible that, for those who had the financial wherewithal after the storm to clean up their property and make the necessary improvements, the colossal event on Aug. 2 actually helped real estate values.