Government, Law, and Real Estate

Saugatuck Dunes development project inches forward

300-acre site is subject to zoning battle.

October 18, 2013
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This month, Judge Kevin Cronin, 48th Circuit Court, entered a consent judgment regarding the “critical dunes overlay” conflict between plaintiff Singapore Dunes and defendant Saugatuck Township that will allow a significant development project along the Saugatuck Township lakeshore to move forward.

In 2012, Michigan amended its “critical dunes law.” The amendment states that local governments cannot impose restrictions that are more restrictive than state law. In addition, local governments cannot regulate critical dunes unless they go to the Department of Environmental Quality and get its authorization and approval to administer an ordinance.

In this case, plaintiff Singapore Dunes faced stricter “dunes overlay” restrictions than state law requires, due to a local Saugatuck Township ordinance. Plaintiff attorney James Bruinsma, of McShane & Bowie, said his client was asking the court to invalidate the Saugatuck Township overlay ordinance due to its conflict with Michigan state law.

The consent judgment is the latest win for Singapore Dunes, which has mounted several legal challenges against Saugatuck Township since 2004 when it contracted to buy the 300-acre property, commonly referred to as the Denison property.

At the time of purchase, there was hope within the township that the property might be turned into a conservation area or become a state park. Instead, Oklahoma resident Aubrey McClendon, former CEO of Chesapeake Energy Co., purchased the property for $40 million with plans to develop it.

“That was the original tension,” explained Bruinsma, who said ongoing battles with the township and environmental groups followed.

Bruinsma said that following his client’s purchase of the land, the township rezoned the property.

“The rezoning was targeted to just affect my client’s property and nobody else in the township, and it was very restrictive and put in place rules that had never been used.

“By that I mean, the density that would be allowed was one house per five acres, which was different than they had used anywhere else along the lakefront, and you had to get special permission from the planning commission even to build a house.

“If somebody else wanted to build a house on their property, they’d go to a building inspector, they’d get a permit issued and build a house. We had to go through an elaborate procedure before the planning commission, and they could say yes or no and maybe we couldn’t do anything.”

In addition to the rezoning, Saugatuck Township also increased the real property taxes on the land.

“So we had what we saw as two opposite moves by the township. On the one hand, they took away all of our usage rights, and then on the other hand they made the property that much more expensive to own,” Bruinsma said.

As a result, Singapore Dunes filed a lawsuit against Saugatuck Township and the individual members of the township board,seeking a rollback of the zoning ordinance.

The lawsuit resulted in a consent judgment entered in 2012 by Chief Judge Paul Maloney, U.S. District Court, Western District of Michigan, Southern Division.

Today, Singapore Dunes is inching forward on its current development plans for the 300 acres, which includes two phases. The first is the development of 19 single-family home sites.

“These all would be on large lots — two to six acres each — on the western acreage closest to Lake Michigan,” Bruinsma said. “All of these home sites comply with local ordinances and no special approvals or variances are needed. The lots have already been created, and they are listed for sale.”

The phase two proposal is for the development of the former factory site location into compact residential development and a marina.

“The proposal would be to cluster four buildings around a private marina along the river,” Bruinsma said. “The condominium buildings would have 16 to 24 units in them, for a total of 72 units.”

He said the plan calls for eliminating surface parking lots by raising the buildings so parking can be located beneath them.

“The extra height works well in this location because the old factory site is ringed with tall dunes that would be higher than the buildings we proposed to build,” he said. “The effective height of the buildings is actually much shorter than other structures in the area because we would be building on the lowest spot on the property.”

Bruinsma said that if Singapore Dunes is permitted to build the four-story buildings in that location as proposed, it would give up its right to build houses on much of the remaining acreage, putting 100 acres or more into permanent conservation.

“That’s essentially the trade-off: Singapore Dunes has the right to build single-family houses on top of the dunes, but it would prefer to cluster that housing in the old factory site by building taller, multi-family buildings behind the dunes but with access to the river,” he said. “It’s a far more environmentally friendly solution and much better for the land. The overall number of houses would not be increased by our proposal; we would simply be concentrating the footprint of the housing into a smaller area.

According to Al Ellingsen, Saugatuck Township zoning administrator, the zoning board of appeals did not approve a height variance last month but did offer that the planning commission has the ability to modify the height restrictions under a planned unit development. He noted it appears the developer is offering a trade of 130 acres in return for the height modification.

Ellingsen said a sketch plan review meeting is scheduled for Oct. 21. The informal meeting will provide an opportunity for the developer and planning commission to discuss the project.

“No formal decision will be made at the meeting because they still have to apply for a planned use development and, by doing so, then there is a public hearing involved and then people have the ability to make their wishes known to the planning commission,” Ellingsen said.

Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, a coalition of individuals and organizations focused on protecting and preserving the Kalamazoo River watershed, which includes the Saugatuck Dunes, continues to oppose the development project.

David Swan, president of the Coastal Alliance board, said his group isn’t opposed to development but in this case the project threatens the natural area and runs counter to the tri-community master plan that was developed several years ago to ensure growth within the area is done with an eye toward preserving the lakeshore and riverfront.

“Singapore Dunes owns over 300 acres of property and yet it’s proposing to build single-family homes on the most fragile, globally rare resources on the entire property,” Swan said. “And it’s looking to preserve areas that are much less environmentally sensitive.”

Swan said a proposed roadway is a major concern for the group because, as currently planned, it would run through interdunal wetlands.

“It’s also important to point out that those interdunal wetlands are globally imperiled and are connected to public lands, and scientists have been very outspoken and specific in their opposition to where that road would be placed,” he said. “That would have a very serious impact on public lands.”

Swan said the Singapore Dunes project requires zoning changes that are not supported under the master plan, and he points to previous legal challenges made by Singapore Dunes to avoid local zoning laws.

“We are opposed to the plan because Singapore Dunes keeps trying to bypass the public zoning process that applies to every other land owner,” he said.

The fight is expected to continue as Singapore Dunes pushes forward with its development plans.

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