back to Current Issues
Updated April 20, 2011
The National Park Service views the Saugatuck Dunes area as offering valuable recreational opportunities. "By virtue of its fine beaches and scenic hinterlands, Saugatuck has a high public use value. Immediate steps should be taken to safeguard these values in order to meet the recreation demands of this region."
Under the guidance of Patty Birkholz (now Michigan Director of the Great Lakes), Saugatuck Dunes State Park is born, adding 900 acres to the public trust and the State of Michigan begins to pursue purchase of what is now called "the Denison," after the land's long-time owners. The Denison land, more than 400 acres of dunes, links Saugatuck Dunes State Park with Oval Beach (50 acres) and Mt Baldhead (100 acres), and encompasses the mouth of the Kalamazoo River.
The Michigan Natural Resource Commission unanimously approves the master plan for Saugatuck Dunes State Park which contains a map detailing future expansion to include the Denison and the Dune Schooner Rides.
The first edition of the Tri-Community Comprehensive Master Plan setting our communities' land-use goals and policies is published.
The more than 400-acre Denison land becomes available for purchase and the negotiations on behalf of the public begin.
Concerned Citizens for Saugatuck Dunes State Park is formed to protect the park from a proposed water treatment facility.
Saugatuck Save Our Shoreline is formed to purchase the Denison.
Saugatuck Save Our Shoreline (SOS), the Conservation Fund, and the Land Conservancy of West Michigan raise funds needed to acquire the Denison.
Work begins on revising the Tri-Community Master Plan. The first step in the two year process was a survey of area leaders on their views of major problems and opportunities. The second step was gathering citizen views of area wide planning issues through opinion surveys mailed to every property owner in the Tri-Communities and distributed to many rental units. The response rate was 40%, considered very high given the one hour completion time. The results of the surveys were used to identify key issues for discussion at a Town meeting. A draft policy-based plan was then prepared based on the Town meeting process and survey results. The draft was refined through a series of meetings with area officials and then presented in a second Town meeting. Citizen comments were then reviewed by officials from each community and incorporated into the Tri-Community Comprehensive Plan. The primary theme throughout the Master Plan is best stated in the following paragraph: "Although waterfront lands have a high revenue generating potential, a major attraction of both the Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo River waterfronts is their scenic, natural shorelines composed of forested sand dunes and large wetland areas. Should these natural areas be greatly damaged or destroyed through inappropriate development, then the "goose that laid the golden egg" will be dead." Pg 8-2
The State's forward-looking plan for all state parks, The Land Consolidation Strategy, is released and reconfirms the efforts to add the entire Denison property to the current Saugatuck Dunes State Park.
In early 2004, a local business leader, working with Saugatuck SOS, makes the first public offer of $36 million for the entire Denison parcel. The Denison Estate and Trust do not respond and the offer expires.
The Saugatuck Township Planning Commission begins planning for the R-4 Lakeshore Open Space Zoned District between Oval Beach and the State Park. This District allows no more than one house on five acres of buildable land. It also prohibits marinas and retail space.
The second public offer to buy the Denison land for $38 million is made during the fall.
With the second public offer still on the table, Aubrey McClendon, buys an option for a partial interest in the Denison Estate. In effect this complex legal action blocks anyone but McClendon from purchasing the land.
The updated Tri-Community Comprehensive Plan is published in June and affirms "public acquisition of the Denison property on both sides of the Kalamazoo River is the top priority for the Tri-Communities."
The Township Planning Commission holds the first public hearing on a proposed zoning ordinance change for the lands at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River on July 11. The second meeting on the zoning change is held one week later on the July 18. The Planning Commission then met with the Township Board on August 3 to discuss zoning changes detailed in the Tri-Community Comprehensive Plan.
On January 25, following months of public input, the Saugatuck Township Planning Commission unanimously recommends the R-4 zoning ordinance. Following more public comment, the Saugatuck Township Board approves the R-4 zoning ordinance at their May 2 meeting.
On June 6, property deeds are recorded by the Allegan County Clerk for the sale of the former Denison properties to Aubrey McClendon.
On August 2, McClendon/Saugatuck LLC assumes all right, title and interest in the entire Denison property.
On August 14, the Township signs a Cooperation Agreement with McClendon/Saugatuck LLC agreeing to good faith consideration of McClendon's development plans. In return, McClendon's attorney, Stephen Neumer temporarily agrees not to sue the Township regarding the R-4 Zoning Ordinance.
On November 21st, at the first of four presentations on the development potential of the Denison, Stephen Neumer acknowledges that "the south has access problems and would be much more difficult" to develop.
On May 24, McClendon/Saugatuck LLC files a petition with the Michigan Tax Tribunal requesting the property's taxable value be lowered to $12 million.
In December, McClendon/Saugatuck LLC attorney Stephen Neumer proposes a Settlement Agreement to the Township Board to eliminate the R-4 zoning requirements, circumventing the public planning process.
Public outcry and legal advice from several attorneys lead to a scheduling of a special meeting on December 19 where more than 350 local citizens speak out in opposition to the proposed Settlement Agreement.
Over 300 citizens attend the January 2 Township meeting and the vast majority speak against the proposed Settlement Agreement. Stephen Neumer requests the Township Board table the Settlement Agreement until a Planned Unit Development application is presented in the spring.
On June 27, Stephen Neumer files a lawsuit on behalf of McClendon/Saugatuck LLC against the Deam/Severt families demanding access across their land. The Deam/Severt families own 10.8 acres of dune land, including the historic lighthouse.
On July 17, Stephen Neumer presents details of a possible short-term lease of the south Denison to the City of Saugatuck. Saugatuck's City Council decides to delay further negotiations.
In early August, McClendon/Saugatuck LLC agrees to negotiate a possible sale of the south Denison land to the City of Saugatuck.
In late summer McClendon changes the name of his land holding company from Saugatuck LLC to Singapore Dunes LLC.
At the December City of Saugatuck Council meeting the details of the purchase agreement between The Nature Conservancy and Singapore Dunes LLC are unveiled. It requires the Deam lawsuit and the Tax Tribunal lawsuits be resolved to Stephen Neumer's satisfaction.
In January Stephen Neumer presents a preliminary plan from Singapore Dunes LLC for development of the north Denison to the Chair of the Saugatuck Township Planning Commission. It includes 24 houses in the dunes, 28 condo units, a marina with an estimated 70 slips, a hotel and restaurant. Current zoning prohibits marinas, docks, piers, and any commercial establishment. The proposed height of the development nearly triples those allowed in the Township.
In March Stephen Neumer proposes a settlement to McClendon's tax assessment lawsuits against Saugatuck Township. He requests changing the tax valuation for McClendon's entire township properties—503 acres in total, 332 (66%) of which lie north of the river—in order to place 70% of the taxable value on the inaccessible and smaller south Denison (171 acres, or 34% of the total), land that he is negotiating to sell to The Nature Conservancy.
In May, Stephen Neumer files seven additional tax assessment lawsuits.
In December, The Land Conservancy of West Michigan finalizes the purchase of the 171-acre South Denison, now named The Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.
Singapore Dunes drops its lawsuit against the Deam/Severt families. As part of the settlement the Deam/Severt families are prohibited from discussing any aspects of negotiations/lawsuits that occurred with Singapore Dunes. It is estimated that it cost the Deam/Severt families well over one hundred thousand dollars to defend themselves against Aubrey McClendon's company.
On March 2, Singapore Dunes LLC. files a complaint in U.S. District Court against the Saugatuck Township Board. The complaint requests R-4 zoning be eliminated and the Township Board be prohibited from making any decisions that affect land owned by Aubrey McClendon. The complaint seeks damages.
On March 4, attorneys for Singapore Dunes deliver a letter warning Board Members of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance not to destroy any materials concerning Aubrey McClendon, the former Denison property, R-4 zoning, nearly 50 individuals and organizations, and Saugatuck Township.
In May Saugatuck Township agrees to settle the Tax assessment lawsuits. Aubrey McClendon's property is now assessed at $12 million. He purchased the 413-acre parcel at the height of the real estate market for $38.6 million. Due to the settlement Aubrey McClendon receives refunds from local Schools, Library, Road Commission, Fire Department, and Saugatuck Township in excess of $150,000.
On May 4, Saugatuck Township voters pass a millage to help raise funds to protect locally-determined zoning, ordinances, and wise land use. The millage is passed by two votes. Two Township residents request a recount.
On May 19, The National Trust for Historic for Historic Preservation names the Saugatuck Dunes to its 2011 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.
On May 28, the Township millage recount is halted due to a clerical error.
On June 2, Allegan County Elections Clerk, Julia Ryan-Canavan, signs a sworn affidavit detailing her role in the events in question surrounding the May 4th Saugatuck Township millage. Jason Watts, a paid employee of Aubrey McClendon's attorney and son of Ryan-Canavan's boss Allegan County Clerk Joyce Watts, along with Kathleen Bruinsma, wife of McClendon's attorney James Bruinsma, assist Julia Ryan-Canavan in drafting her sworn affidavit.
On June 4, Walter Hanlin and John Latini file a lawsuit requesting a recount and enjoin Defendants from taking any action to levy the millage. Hanlin and Latini both go on record stating the lawsuit is funded by Aubrey McClendon.
On June 15, attorneys for Aubrey McClendon in the Federal Lawsuit serve 6 Saugatuck Area civic groups with subpoenas. Those served include a home-owners organization, several neighborhood groups, the League of Women Voters –Holland, the local Historical Society, and two land-use organizations. The over-broad subpoenas demand all financial records and all documents relating to over 54 individuals (including former Governor William Milliken).
On June 29, attorneys for Hanlin and Latini (McClendon) subpoena the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. The subpoena is nearly identical to that served in the Federal Lawsuit.
In July, Aubrey McClendon threatens a defamation lawsuit against the National Trust for Historic Preservation for adding the Saugatuck Dunes to its 2011 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The National Trust is served with a subpoena. This is the first time the National Trust has been threatened with litigation for including a site on their prestigious list of historic places.
Estimated legal costs paid to date by Saugatuck Township directly attributed to Aubrey McClendon's lawsuits total $197,000.
On September 2, Allegan County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Cronin rules in favor of Saugatuck Township in the millage recount lawsuit. Following Cronin's ruling Michigan's Bureau of Elections refers the case to the Attorney General.
On September 28, the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance is directly served with a subpoena in the Federal lawsuit. This is a breach of protocol, as papers should have been served to Alliance attorneys.
On October 7, Federal Magistrate Judge Scoville hears oral arguments on Plaintiffs request to amend their complaint. McClendon attorneys filed a motion to amend, rather than a response to the Township motion to dismiss which was due in September.
In November, Aubrey McClendon amends his complaint and does not seek damages. By not seeking damages the insurance policy covering Saugatuck Township is not activated. McClendon attorneys are indirect when asked by Judge Scoville whether they seek damages. Scoville writes in his January 3, 2011 order, "Rather, continuing their efforts at obscurity, plaintiff's attorneys set forth verbatim the relief requested in the amended complaint without ever really committing themselves to answer the question whether plaintiff seeks damages in this case. "Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no" remains good advice."
On December 3, attorneys for Hanlin and Latini (McClendon) file an appeal to the Saugatuck Township millage recount.
On March 7th Federal District Judge Maloney hears oral arguments to determine if Aubrey McClendon' s lawsuit should be dismissed. Of the four separate requests for dismissal made by Saugatuck Township, Judge Maloney rules that Federal Court is the appropriate jurisdiction. He will allow limited discovery in determining whether the three other requests for dismissal should stand. The other three requests concern the merits of the case which are proper notice, spot-zoning, and bias on the part of the Saugatuck Township Board.
On April 14 Michigan's Attorney General, Bill Schuette, files misdemeanor criminal charges against Saugatuck Township Clerk Jane Wright and Deputy Clerk Lori Babinski for their mishandling of ballots in the May 3, 2010 millage election. Though the Secretary of State report also cited Julia Ryan, Allegan County Deputy Clerk, for improper direction to local election officials, as well as Allegan County Clerk Joyce Watts, Attorney General does not file charges against Julia Ryan and Joyce Watts.
Please check back as we continue to update this timeline frequently.