Why the Dunes are Important
Why the Dunes are Threatened
A Timeline of Events
What ELPC is Doing to Help
The Saugatuck Coastal Dunes Area is a pristine assembly of beaches, freshwater dunes, water, woods and wetlands running from Douglas to Holland and covering approximately 2,500 acres along the Lake Michigan coastline and the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. A mix of private residences, historic sites and significant ecological habitat comprise the area, which local and national advocates have worked hard to preserve over many years (click here to view a recent timeline of events).
The area includes globally imperiled inter-dunal wetlands, habitat that is home to several threatened and endangered species. And it joins together Saugatuck’s Oval Beach, the Saugatuck Lighthouse Cottage, and the Ox-Bow School of Art. Endangered wildlife includes the prairie warbler, which depends on the jack pines that grow in the Dunes. And threatened birds, such as bald eagles, osprey, northern harrier and black terns, have also been documented in the area.
These Dunes have been named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Proposed development could destabilize the dunes, creating substantial risk for the endangered and threatened wildlife that depend on this unique habitat. Further, it could threaten a unique way of life and tourism for the people who live in and visit the area, which contains a crosshatch of boutiques and inns.
As Lana Pollack, Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board Chair and former Michigan State Senator, put it: “The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Areas represents an extraordinary mix of historical, cultural and ecological assets – threatened by a commonplace (albeit very expensive) housing, marina, commercial and hotel development.”
A natural gas billionaire has purposefully outbid the 60-year effort to protect the historic and ecological treasures along the river and lakeshore. Aubrey McClendon, founder of Chesapeake Energy, bought approximately 400 acres of the Dunes land with the intention to build luxury homes, condos, a 9-story hotel, a 70-slip marina, and a 9-hole golf course. Download a map.
These development plans are all prohibited by local zoning rules, but McClendon is fighting local law through several expensive lawsuits. The billionaire tycoon’s strategy is to bankrupt the local municipality, the 3,000-resident Saugatuck Township, which has already spent well over half its annual operating budget to defend its zoning rules. In May 2010, township residents voted 491-489 for a tax increase to help pay legal bills.
After fighting and sacrificing for this lawsuit over several years, locals are gearing up to fight McClendon’s unfair and dangerous settlement proposal and defend local zoning. A potential settlement agreement is in the works for summer 2011.
Another of McClendon’s legal strategies is a defamation suit against the National Trust for Historic Preservation following their naming of the Saugatuck Dunes to the 2010 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places.
Please read through the timeline detailing the legal maneuvers of McClendon and his attorneys. This linear narrative is important in understanding the context, nuance, timing, and complexity of this irresponsible drive to eliminate protective zoning rules in an ecologically and culturally significant part of the United States.
ELPC serves as the legal counsel for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance and the seven conservation, civic and historic preservation organizations that are fighting to protect the dunes and uphold local zoning. McClendon has retaliated by serving extensive subpoenas and deposition requests to local citizens and civic organizations that publicly challenge his plans. These actions are designed to harass, intimidate and otherwise deter citizen and public participation.
In October 2010, ELPC won “round 1” on behalf of the members and volunteers of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, the Laketown Alliance for Neighborly Development and several other local civic groups. Federal Magistrate Judge Joseph Scoville issued an order agreeing with ELPC and prohibiting intrusive and harassing document requests and depositions of the members of these groups.
In July 2011, the Saugatuck Township Board convened a public hearing to consider a proposed settlement of its federal lawsuit with McClendon’s development company. The settlement would allow much of McClendon’s desired development and would also restrict the Township’s ability to enforce its laws to protect the lakeshore and its resources.
Here is why local groups and Township citizens think McClendon’s proposed “deal” is worse than losing the lawsuit:
- His lawsuit only seeks to roll back the R-4 zoning. This “deal” would go further and lock in his “rights” to build his resort development plan forever.
- The “deal” would allow McClendon to flip these development “rights” to the highest bidder. The Township would have no control over who could own and develop the land.
- The “deal” still allows McClendon to build his nine-story hotel, six-story condos, a golf course, horse stables, and other associated buildings. What’s worse, the “deal” places the most dense activity and tallest development in the most sensitive areas he owns – areas that include endangered and threatened species, significant historic sites, and beautiful vistas that are so important for our tourist economy.
- The “deal” strips the Township of much of its traditional oversight authority that it would have even under the former zoning classification. There would be little opportunity for the Township to review development plans to protect the natural features of the dunes.
- The “deal” will not end the risk of lawsuits and endless litigation. If McClendon does not like the way the Township is reviewing his plans, he can sue and force the Township to pay his legal bills.
In November 2011, the Court ruled that the proposed consent decree violated state law because it would have prevented the Township Board from ever modifying the zoning of McClendon’s property and created a remedy that exceeded the procedural harms alleged by the developer. Read our press statement for full details.