Laws regulating development in the Saugatuck Dunes
Posted: Mar 23, 2017
The Coastal Alliance would like to make clear several points.
First, while we appreciate Cottage Home taking local citizens on tour of their land at the river mouth and the private meetings they’ve conducted, we still believe the best path to find development solutions that blend conservation design and community values is to host a series of townhall-style listening sessions as described by Richard Shaw of Design Workshop.
As Richard Shaw explained during his presentation at the Saugatuck Center for the Arts in February, when the conversation narrows from an open community dialogue down to the planning and regulatory phases so too do the solutions and options.
This is the primary reason the Coastal Alliance, on the advice of Richard Shaw, strongly encourages Cottage Home to have more open public listening sessions, before proceeding to the planning, as well as the regulatory, phase.
Second, regarding the regulatory phase the Saugatuck Dunes at the Kalamazoo River mouth is a complex landscape. It is home to globally imperiled interdunal wetlands, threatened and endangered species, historic sites, and significant Great Lakes habitat including living dunes systems. Due to the nature of these complexities this landscape is subject to a variety of regulatory policies.
The local Master Plan calls out this property specifically several times:
“Public acquisition of the Denison property on both sides of the Kalamazoo River is the top priority for the Tri-Communities.” Pg 13-2
“The northwest corner of the Township, along with the most of the land in Saugatuck west of the Kalamazoo lake should be preserved for public open space and the portion that remains in private ownership should be maintained for low intensity uses (like the art colony and church camp).” Pg 10-7
“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 Plan seeks to define a balance between competing uses. It places protection of the natural environment as first and foremost in making future land use decisions along the Lake Michigan and Kalamazoo River waterfronts.” Pg 8-2
“Sensitive dune ecosystems also occur in the dune areas on either side of the Kalamazoo River mouth at Lake Michigan. This area is planned for protection but details have yet to be finalized.” Pg 8-6
“Several vistas have public values that deserve protection. These include the entry into and exit from Lake Michigan on the Kalamazoo River, the view from Mount Baldhead, the view of the Kalamazoo River from both ends, and approaches to the Kalamazoo River Bridge.” Pg 8-26
The local zoning ordinances, in aligning with the Master Plan as they must do by law, recognize the necessity of protecting the dunes:
Sec. 40-337. - Management and regulation of Uses and developments in the designated critical sand dune.
The only Uses that may be allowed in the critical sand dune area are the following:
Such noncommercial recreational uses as would not have a materially adverse effect upon the natural contours of the land and its vegetation;
Such Planned Unit Developments and special approval uses as may be approved by the Planning Commission, but only for residential or noncommercialrecreational Uses.
And of course the Sand Dunes in Michigan are subject to regulatory oversight from the Department of Environmental Quality. When a property owner wants to excavate and move more than 3,000 tons of sand it typically triggers Sand Dune Mining regulations. It is estimated that the proposed Cottage Home marina will require the removal of 160,000 tons of sand, fifty times what typically triggers regulatory oversight.
NATURAL RESOURCES AND ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION ACT (EXCERPT)
Act 451 of 1994
(l) “Sand dune mining” means the removal of sand from sand dune areas for commercial or industrial purposes, or both. The removal of sand from sand dune areas in volumes of less than 3,000 tons is not sand dune mining if the removal is a 1-time occurrence and the reason the sand is removed is not for the direct use for an industrial or commercial purpose. However, the removal of any volume of sand that is not sand dune mining within a critical dune area as defined in part 353 is subject to the critical dune protection provisions of part 353. The department may authorize in writing the removal of more than 3,000 tons of sand without a sand dune mining permit issued pursuant to section 63704 for a purpose related to protecting an occupied dwelling or other structure from property damage related to the migration of sand or the instability of sand. This removal may be for more than 1 occurrence, but a written authorization from the department is required for each removal.
State and Federal regulatory policy also recognizes the fragility of the globally imperiled interdunal wetlands. In 2013 the United State Department of the Interior Fish & Wildlife Service wrote to the US EPA regarding the Singapore Dunes application for construction in the Saugatuck Dunes:
“In addition, the applicant should provide the impacts of the complete development of residential housing in this plan to provide the total future, cumulative impacts to the interdunal wetlands that are unique to coastal areas along Lake Michigan.”
The Fish & Wildlife letter was then followed by a letter of concern from the US Environmental Protection Agency:
“Constructing a road and residences within or near this critical dune and interdunal wetland complex will result in negative impacts.
EPA is also concerned that permit applications for the proposed Singapore Dunes project are being piecemealed. The project description for Phase 1 in Public Notice 13-03-0079-P is a small part of the site that the applicant intends to construct. The MDEQ must consider the complete project when analyzing the negative effects of the proposed project. Addiitonal impacts proposed for the site include developing 19 single family home sites, additional residential buildings, roads, and a marina. One permit application that includes all reasonably foreseeable impacts from the development, instead of several smaller permit applications with limited impacts, should be required at allow EPA, MDEQ, and the public to accurately access the impacts resulting from the entire project.”
Even the Green Building Council that certifies LEED buildings has rules and regulations governing impacts to landscapes where development is proposed:
"All LEED projects must be constructed and operated on a permanent location on existing land... This requirement applies to all land within the LEED project".
Third, we list only a handful of laws and regulations written to protect a Great Lakes landscape such as the Saugatuck Dunes, but these are significant and have been in place for decades.
It is worth noting that the former owner of the dunes at the Kalamazoo River Mouth, Singapore Dunes LLC, planned at various moments to include: equestrian center and trails, skeet shooting range, golf course, marina, nine-story condominiums, and nearly 200 houses scattered across the dunes. But after about seven years of floating these ideas, Singapore Dunes only pursued approvals/permits for about twenty lots. They never pursued the regulatory permits necessary for a marina carved out of a designated critical dune area. Nor did they ever pursue the necessary local permits for a marina from the Zoning Board of Appeals. And after nearly ten years of ownership Singapore Dunes, owned by one of America’s wealthiest and best-connected land-owners, was unable to sell a single lot.
It remains a mystery why Singapore Dunes, with their deep political connections, never pursued the regulatory permits necessary to excavate 160,000 tons of sand from a designated critical dune area in order to construct a marina. Or, perhaps it isn’t.