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Another proposed development, another controversy in Saugatuck duneland

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Another proposed development in the coastal sand dunes along Lake Michigan is causing some controversy in Saugatuck. Opponents will ask state officials to reject a permit request at a hearing tonight.

They’d like to scale back a project that’ll turn a nearly century-old church campground into a private development for 12 beachfront homes.

Dave Barker is one of the developers. He says the homes would sit only on a small portion of the property, which includes 130 acres of duneland along Lake Michigan.

“This camp has been there so long and people are having a little bit of a hard time accepting the fact that hey it’s changing, but that’s the way it is,” Barker said. “I think we’ve done a pretty good job of having an eco-friendly development that’s quite responsible.”

The hearing is specifically to address Barker’s plans to widen and pave an existing gravel road to access the new homes.

Opponents of the project worry about the development’s impact on the larger ecosystem in the dunes.

Former state legislator Patty Birkholtz is with Michigan League of Conservation Voters, but she’s been a Saugatuck resident much longer.

She worries this and another new development nearby will compromise the dune's ecosystem. 

“Now that the dunes law has been changed you’re going to see people wanting to do very large projects all over the dunescapes in Michigan and it puts them all in peril. A lot of people see Saugatuck as a test case unfortunately,” Birkholtz said.

Lawmakers adopted the changes two years ago. They put fewer restrictions on building permits in “critical dune” areas.

“The very sad thing is that the law was able to be changed. The legislators did not understand the significance or did not care to acknowledge the significance of our duneland,” she said, noting unique environments and tourism opportunities the dunes host.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality approved a similar permit for a much more controversial development in Saugatuck Township earlier this year.

“There is quite a bit of parkland already. The city is really in need of some tax revenue,” Barker said of the dunes in the Saugatuck area.

“But we have been trying to appease the public by offering a great portion of the back of the property, which will not be developed. So when you go to the Oval Beach, for example, and drive down that beautiful road, all the trees and the vista will be preserved,” he said.