Saugatuck Dunes

Saugatuck Residents Say Court’s Decision is a Victory for Their Community

Saugatuck residents, conservation, historical and civic organizations are declaring victory after Chief Judge Paul Maloney of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan declared illegal a proposed consent decree between developer Aubrey McClendon’s Singapore Dunes L.L.C. and the Saugatuck Township Board that would have allowed the developer to build a hotel, marina and condominiums on duneland on the shore of Lake Michigan.

The development is contrary to Saugatuck Township’s current zoning laws. McClendon sued Saugatuck Township over the zoning laws in federal court.  On November 1st, 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.

The Court’s decision holds that the proposed consent decree is illegal and “impermissibly ties the hands of future township boards.” The Township and McClendon can renegotiate, but any new settlement cannot sign away the ability of future Township Boards to zone and protect land within the community.

“Judge Maloney’s decision helps restore faith in the fairness of ‘the system’,” said Marcia Perry, Vice President of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA).  “The hundreds of people who protested this unfair proposed consent agreement are justified by the Judge’s ruling.”

“This is a huge victory for the Saugatuck people and businesses who care about protecting our ‘pure Michigan’ landscape,” said SDCA President David Swan. “The Court’s decision affirms that the rule of law can trump the influence of a billionaire’s money and political clout.”

“As a resident of Saugatuck Township for over 35 years, I’m pleased to see that the Court has upheld our Township’s authority to make land use decisions,” said Sandra Randolph, Saugatuck Township resident and business owner. “I hope this will lead to a fair process that will better serve our community going forward.”

“The National Trust for Historic Preservation is delighted that Judge Maloney’s action has given the community another chance to protect the historic character and pristine natural beauty of the Saugatuck Dunes coastal area,” said Stephanie Meeks, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We also applaud the Court’s decision to require a public hearing prior to its review of any future consent decree incorporating development proposals for this fragile area. We continue to believe that over-scaled development would inflict irreparable harm on the Saugatuck Dunes coastal area and we will continue to work to encourage local community officials and the developer to find a solution that protects this unique and historic place.”

“The Court decided that the local government’s and Saugatuck communities’ authority to make land use and planning decisions can’t be bartered away,” said Howard Learner, Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center and lead counsel for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. “This is an important legal precedent for smart land use in the Saugatuck communities and across Western Michigan.”

Read more in the Holland Sentinel.

Read more on ELPC’s Saugatuck Dunes page.

Saugatuck Township Board Votes to Approve Settlement

On Friday, the Saugatuck Township (Mich.) Board voted to approve a settlement that, if approved by a federal court judge, will allow significant development on an area of coastal dunes owned by Aubrey McClendon, chief executive of Chesapeake Energy Corp. According to local press, the Board deliberated for less than 30 minutes after hearing more than 4 hours of public comment, most opposed to the settlement and the development.

Read more from the Allegan News or the Chicago News Cooperative. ELPC is legal counsel for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, which opposes intensive commercial development of this pristine assembly of dunes, beaches, woods, and wetlands. Read more.

Saugatuck Township Meeting Postponed

On July 18th, a meeting to discuss the proposed settlement regarding proposed development on part of the Saugatuck Dunes was cut short by local police after an overflow crowd overwhelmed the local high school cafeteria. Local media reported on print and television that nearly 500 people showed up to attend the meeting, where the maximum capacity was about 200. The meeting has been rescheduled for Friday, July 22nd, in the high school gymnasium, which is designed to hold 1,200 people.

The meeting will include brief presentations by both sides, followed by a 2-hour public comment period. Those wishing to speak will be given three minutes each to state their opinions. More information is available from the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.

Saugatuck Dunes: ELPC Represents Local Groups Fighting Back Against Proposed Development, Intimidation

ELPC is serving as legal counsel for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance and several other Southwest Michigan organizations fighting to protect the Saugatuck Coastal Dunes Area.

This pristine assembly of beaches, dunes, woods, and wetlands has been protected by local zoning rules for more than a generation. But now billionaire energy tycoon Aubrey McClendon wants to develop luxury hotels, condos, a hotel, a marina, and a golf course on the precious lands many have worked hard to preserve.

In October 2010, after McClendon had served extensive subpoenas on dozens of individuals and civic organizations that had questioned his plans, a federal magistrate judge deferred the subpoenas and limited them. While the order was a victory over McClendon’s effort to harass, intimidate and otherwise deter citizen and public participation, the effort to protect the dunes is far from over.

Or it could end on July 18. That’s when the Saugatuck Township Board will convene a public hearing to consider a proposed settlement that would allow much of McClendon’s desired development as well as restrict the Township’s ability to enforce its laws to protect the lakeshore and its resources.  Many residents and concerned citizens are calling on the Township to reject McClendon’s one-sided proposal and consider more reasonable options to protect Saugatuck’s economy and the region’s irreplaceable shoreline.

The dunes have never been in more peril. Refer to our up-to-date Saugatuck page for more information.

Why the Dunes are Important
Why the Dunes are Threatened
A Timeline of Events
What ELPC is Doing to Help


Why the Dunes are Important

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.”

Why the Dunes are Threatened

After losing several battles with ELPC and our local allies, billionaire developer Aubry McClenden scaled back his original plans somewhat (click here for a timeline of events) and now seeks to build single-family homes and high-rise condominiums with an accompanying marina on the property. While this proposal is much less destructive than the original resort plan, much of it is still sited in the most ecologically sensitive portion of the property, on the dunes along Lake Michigan. Further, this residential plan does not meet the environmental standards of the town’s zoning ordinance and has other procedural defects.

What ELPC is Doing to Help

ELPC serves as the legal counsel for the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance in its fight to protect the dunes and uphold local zoning rules. Currently, ELPC is engaging in the environmental permit process for the first phase of development and challenging variance requests before the Zoning Board of Appeals to ensure that any development fully complies with the town’s environmental zoning requirements and is as environmentally responsible as possible.