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Decisions loom in years-long legal fight over Saugatuck dune development

A view of the Saugatuck Dunes.
Lester Graham
Michigan Radio
A view of the Saugatuck Dunes.

The coming weeks could mark a crucial point in the 17-year long battle over a proposed development near Saugatuck.

The North Shores of Saugatuck wants to build 50 homes and a marina basin along the Kalamazoo River, near Lake Michigan. It’s the second proposed development for the site, which sits just south of Saugatuck Dunes State park, and across the river to the north of downtown Saugatuck.

“This is some of the most biologically diverse inter-dunal wetlands that we have in the state of Michigan,” said David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, which has been fighting against development on the site for years.

The current plans for the property are a scaled back version of a proposal first pushed more than a decade ago. Since that initial proposal, a new owner took over and put forward the Northshore of Saugatuck plan, which calls for 50 homes and a marina basin on the 300-acre property.

“When North Shore acquired this property, it made a commitment to develop it in a reasonable and balanced manor, and to do so responsibly,” said attorney Carl Gabrielse during a hearing over the proposed development last month that was hosted by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Gabrielse presented images of the site where North Shore wants to build a new marina basin, showing dilapidated buildings and equipment that have since been removed.

“It was an industrial boat manufacturing facility,” Gabrielse said. “This is the site of the boat basin, not a pristine, untouched sand dune ecosystem.”

But the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance argues the proposed marina would remove 250,000 tons of sand from one of the state’s critical dune areas. The alliance has argued the marina also goes against a local zoning ordinance which states: “ In no event shall a canal or channel be excavated for the purpose of increasing the Water Frontage.”

The township’s zoning board initially approved plans for the North Shore development, but the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance fought for the right to appeal the decision, in a case that eventually made it to the Michigan Supreme Court.

A hearing had been scheduled for July 31st for the Alliance to finally make its case, but that meeting was postponed.

Even if the township allowed the the local permit to stand, the development still needs the approval of state and federal regulators before it can proceed. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy closed out a public comment period on the permit application last month, and could make its decision any time.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which also would have to approve the plan, hasn’t indicated when its decision will be coming.

But Swan said, after 17 years of fighting, he believes a resolution could be close.

“I do feel as though we’re getting close,” he said. “I do feel as though we’re getting close. The science gets stronger and stronger year after year with a few scientists studying the globally-imperiled inter-dunal wetlands.”

More people, Swan said, are realizing just how unique and important these dunes are. And he believes regulators will see that, and ultimately decide to reject the development plan.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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