once again, litigation dominates the headlines regarding the development of 310 acres of pristine coastal habitat just north of the river. Money that could have been invested in furthering efforts to restore one of the most impaired waterways in the Great Lakes, instead pads the pockets of attorneys.
There has to be a better way than ongoing litigation.
I, like many, hoped we could pool enough public and private funds to purchase roughly 500 acres of the former Denison property in 2006; to place this pristine coastal land bordering both sides of the Kalamazoo River mouth in the hands of the public. It did not happen. An out-of-towner named Aubrey McClendon won the bid. And while he eventually sold the 173 acres on the south side of the river, allowing for the creation of the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, his plans for the north side splintered the community and nearly bankrupted the township as litigation dragged on for years.
I added my voice to those fighting McClendon’s plans to place an equestrian center, a marina, multi-story hotel, golf course, shops, condominiums, and residential homes on the land. My concern was the effect it would have on the river as it flowed into Lake Michigan. Manure from horse barns, fertilizers used on lawns and fairways, runoff from asphalt roads and parking lots would hurt, not help, the region-wide efforts to restore the Great Lakes.
McClendon died in March of 2016. As of January, 2017, there are new owners—Peg and Jeff Padnos of Holland, MI. They, in concert with local developer Brian Bosgraaf, plan to place two thirds of the land, roughly 203 acres, in a conservation easement. To make that economically possible, they plan to build seven homes alongside Lake Michigan, eight alongside the Kalamazoo River, and dig a 1500-foot-long private boat basin with 23 home sites on the land where the former Broward Marine building used to stand.
The proposed 18’-deep basin is at the heart of the current litigation. The Saugatuck Dune Coastal Alliance, a nonprofit conservation organization, filed suit against the Saugatuck Township Planning Commission in June, claiming preliminary approval for the basin (still subject to review by the U.S. Amy Corps of Engineers and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) was in violation of the township’s approval process and zoning ordinances.
I have stood alongside Alison Swan, one of the initial leaders of the Saugatuck Dune Coastal Alliance, at numerous public hearings when McClendon owned the property. She is a published author and poet, a woman of heart, a nurturing spirit. She, and others, are trying to do the right thing for a fragile ecosystem at the mouth of an already-impaired river.
I know Peg Padnos. A published poet, she, too, is a woman of heart, a nurturing spirit. She, Jeff, and Brian are also trying to do the right thing. And while this new plan is nothing like McClendon’s, I can see both sides of a familiar question.
How do we, as neighbors, friends, and acquaintances sharing this special place on the planet, negotiate a balance between protecting our water and allowing development that provides jobs and economic prosperity to the community? Is it better for the ecosystem to preserve two thirds of the land and dig a basin or fully develop the property with home sites and roads crisscrossing the dunes?
I don’t know the answer. I doubt a judge will either.
Litigation is the face of mistrust, lost faith in government’s ability to find that delicate balance between jobs and the environment. I understand that, particularly in today’s political environment where it appears scarce natural resources are neither valued nor protected. But in this small resort community, there must be a better way to find answers than litigating every step we are making together, as stewards of this planet.
One possibility is participation in the Waterkeeper Alliance, an organization defending the fundamental human right to quality water in over 300 communities around the world. Across the Great Lakes—from Milwaukee to the St. Lawrence River—Waterkeepers are at the table, advocating for the water.
“When I was hired as the Grand Traverse Baykeeper in 2002, my goal was to advocate for the water without litigation,” says retired Baykeeper John Nelson. “That meant spending a lot of time with people on the front end. My greatest accomplishment before retiring in 2016, was knowing we had elevated awareness among engineers, developers, and planners so that few permits reached the desk of government agencies without our fingerprints on them. We were able to actually change behavior so that clean water was part of the process from the outset.”
Could a Waterkeeper, trained, mentored, and supported, help mediate our differences? Provide a single point of contact for the eight counties touching the Kalamazoo River? Influence the future of the river so that someday it is "drinkable, fishable, swimmable?"
It is a possibility worth exploring.
To be continued . . .
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