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6th Circuit Ct. of Appeals rules for developers in Jean Klock Park case

Updated 12:30p.m. 1/31/12

90-acres of land along the Lake Michigan shore were donated nearly a century ago to the City of Benton Harbor for public recreation. In 2008, city leaders agreed to lease 22 acres of Jean Klock Park to a non-profit developer known as Harbor Shores. The developer converted the land into 3 holes of a Jack Nicklaus golf course.

A group of citizens filed a federal lawsuit claiming environmental rules were violated when the golf course was built. They believe the violations are egregious enough that the lease should be renegotiated or terminated.

Terry Lodge represents the group of citizens who brought the federal lawsuit. He notes that lease between the city and Harbor Shores acknowledges the possibility that the course could be restored to natural dunes and beaches.

"(The lease) says that if the deal ever falls through or Harbor Shores runs out of money or something that they will restore the park to - and I don’t know how they would exactly do this - but they would restore the park to what it formerly was."

The group argues the parkland was severely undervalued in the appraisal process. They point out that the land the City of Benton Harbor got in a land swap is contaminated. That contamination wasn't disclosed before the deal. 

"I can’t speculate as to why the court exactly came to the decision is came to," Lodge said. "I do think it is very significant that in its decision – even though in the briefs by all parties there’s considerable discussion about this contamination problem - the word contamination, pollution; they don’t appear anywhere in the decision."

A federal appeals court upheld a lower court's ruling in favor of the developers of a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course in Benton Harbor. The course was built on public parkland along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

A group of concerned citizens first filed the lawsuit in 2008. They say federal environmental rules were violated when the golf course was built.

This week the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling issued by a federal judge in Grand Rapids.

Jeff Noel is President of Harbor Shores, the development group that built the golf course.

“At every level of the court system, the courts have overwhelmingly ruled in our favor and I hope that helps make people feel better that we have adhered to a fair open and honest legal system to review what has been done in the past,” Noel said.

But the citizens who filed the case do not feel any better about the course. That’s because the appeals court ruled it does not have the power to undo any perceived harm because the golf course is already built and operating.

When the case was first filed in 2008 the group tried to get a judge to order the developers to stop building until the case was settled, but that was denied. Lodge says they thought about appealing the ruling but figured it would take too long.  

“We thought the case would probably be decided on its merits and we’d be at a court of appeals within that year,” Lodge said. But it ended up taking at least twice as long for that ruling.

Noel says the golf course and surrounding housing development will provide a long-term economic boost to a city that’s desperate for jobs.

"I think the plaintiffs may never chose to look at the big picture but I think that the majority of the public and the majority of those who have visited the area – especially those who knew what condition that park was in before overwhelmingly believe this is a fantastic opportunity for the community," Noel said. He thinks this kind of legal battle prevents other community leaders from tackling big problems in unique way. 

The citizens haven’t decided if they’ll appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. They have two months to do that.

You can see the federal court’s final opinion here and argument for both the plaintiffand defendantin the 6th Circuit here.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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