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State regulators to issue permit for controversial development in duneland, with conditions

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
The DEQ will require a land easement to minimize impacts to the unique interdunal wetland ecosystems on the property. This is the property just south of the proposed development.

A controversial development that’s proposed on 300 acres of critical duneland in Saugatuck is likely to get the state permit it needs to get the project rolling. The parcel has been at the center of a years-long legal battle.

Environmentalists wanted the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to reject the permit. So did the federal Environmental Protection Agencyand the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But DEQ Director Dan Wyant says the project is permitted under state law, with certain conditions.

“We anticipate in short order that the details of the permit will be developed and the permit will be offered,” Wyant said.

The DEQ sent a letter to the developer this weekoutlining the conditions required to get the permit.

"We’ll wait and see what the response is from all sides on this but we wanted to be transparent, we wanted to be forthcoming about the decision given that it’s been in the news," Wyant said.

Wyant notes the developer will be able to build only 17 homes -- not as many as he'd like. He’ll have to replace more native plants and better secure the shifting sand dunes to make way for an access road. He'll also have to give up eight acres of land to the state or a land conservancy to protect rare wetlands that have formed inside the critical dunes.

Environmentalists are not pleased with state regulators' decision.

Nicholas Occhipinti is with the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.

“We’re happy the DEQ took such serious consideration of the issue,” Occhipinti said, “But this is a really precious, really globally unique treasure. It’s really time to come together as a community and look at what we can do together to preserve this.”

There’s been talk for a while about someone or some group buying the land to put in a public trust or conservancy. The entire parcel has been listed for sale since August. So far, no one has come up with the $40 million sale price.  

“Certainly from WMEAC’s perspective it increases our interest in getting it done,” Occhipinti said.

The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance issued this written statement:

We are disappointed with the intention of the DEQ to approve a "road to nowhere" that ignores the scientific evidence attesting to the devastating and irreversible damage it will cause to this globally rare and fragile dune system. The additional conditions required to be met by the developer are inadequate to protect this natural resource. We are disappointed and frankly baffled by the DEQ's failure to consider this development project in its entirety. By cutting the project into little unconnected pieces, it creates greater potential for future conflicts with homeowners while seriously degrading the natural resource. The Coastal Alliance is evaluating our next steps with our attorneys. Along with our many committed partners, we will continue to vigorously advocate for the protection of these Saugatuck dunelands which are uniquely valuable to this regional community, the State of Michigan and the world.

Stephen Nuemer, who’s with the developer behind the project, Singapore Dunes LLC, did not yet return requests for comment on the state’s response.

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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