Freshwater Future

By David Swan, President, Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance

The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance is celebrating a terrific victory that benefits Michigan and the Great Lakes. This past December a 171-acre property located in southwest Michigan, linking Saugatuck’s Oval Beach to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River has been acquired by the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. A multitude of people worked collaboratively over the past several years to help preserve this land, including (but certainly not limited to): activists and many activist organizations (thanks Freshwater Future!); philanthropists; the Natural Resources Trust Fund Board who granted $10.5 million for the acquisition; the conservancy community; elected and appointed officials, especially State Senator Birkholz; and an assortment of determined individuals.

The land will be turned over to the City of Saugatuck in the next few years to be managed as the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area, providing a spectacular community resource for recreation and solitude. The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance sees the acquisition of the 171 acres as a great first step in protecting the Saugatuck Dunes.

The equally important second step is holding firm on local zoning established by Saugatuck Township that requires five-acres per dwelling and prohibits commercial development. This zoning was enacted to protect the community’s historic and ecological resources. A developer has requested a rezone on a 300-plus acre property located across the Kalamazoo River, just north of the recently protected 171 acres to develop a 70-slip marina, hotel, restaurant, and retail shops’ all prohibited under current zoning, as well as a much higher density of single and multi-family homes.

If zoning is not upheld the cultural and ecological impacts to this rare duneland would be many. The proposed development would likely be located over the ghost town of Singapore, a former port and lumber town that lies buried beneath the dunes. Another concern is that the scale of the development, particularly the height of the proposed buildings, would probably become the primary visual feature degrading the important viewsheds at several locations including the views at the Ox-Bow School of Art where the dunes have inspired painters for over 100 years.

Also at risk, is the ecological integrity of the dunes one of the most active spots along Lake Michigan for breeding/nesting pairs of the endangered prairie warbler and habitat to several other threatened/endangered species.

The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance has spent the past three years trying to make individuals, organizations, and elected/appointed officials aware of how local zoning and regulatory policy is written to protect the remarkable resources of the Saugatuck Dunes and how those resources: historical, cultural, ecological, recreational, educational, and even spiritualdrive the local sustainable tourist economy.

“The staff at Freshwater Future has been invaluable in helping the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance craft a strategy to manage the shifting complexities of this situation,” said David Swan. The victory to preserve the 171-acres has energized and encouraged people to continue to work to uphold the local zoning.

To learn how you can help protect the Saugatuck Dunes visit: and sign-up to receive action alerts. You can also call 269-857-1842. The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance published a coffee table art book representing a variety of art inspired by the Saugatuck Dunes. Copies can be purchased directly on the website. All proceeds benefit the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.