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Conservation groups can challenge zoning decision on Saugatuck dune development

Saugatuck Dunes
Lester Graham
/
Michigan Radio
A view of the Saugatuck Dunes.

There’s another development in a decade-long legal battle over a proposed development along Lake Michigan, near Saugatuck. And this time, the win went to the group trying to stop the development.

The owners want to build a new canal and marina, near the mouth of the Kalamazoo River. To do that, they’d need to remove an area of dunes.

Conservationists with the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance tried to stop it at the local level in Saugatuck Township in 2017, but the township Zoning Board of Appeals ruled they didn’t have standing.

But, in a ruling issued Friday, the Michigan Supreme Court disagreed.

“It’s very substantial for the citizenry of Michigan to participate in zoning decisions,” said David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.

He says the ruling will allow for others to challenge local zoning decisions statewide in the future, because it clarifies who can be considered an “aggrieved party” to challenge those decisions. Specifically, the Supreme Court rejected the idea that only nearby property owners can challenge a zoning decision, and instead set a three-part test to establish who can have standing on such challenges:

“First, the appellant must have participated in the challenged proceedings by taking a position on the contested proposal or decision," the court wrote. "Second, the appellant must claim some protected interest or protected personal, pecuniary, or property right that will be or is likely to be affected by the challenged decision. Third, the appellant must provide some evidence of special damages arising from the challenged decision in the form of an actual or likely injury to or burden on their asserted interest or right that is different in kind or more significant in degree than the effects on others in the local community.”

The Court didn’t rule on whether the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance met all the requirements in order to be considered an “aggrieved party” with standing to challenge the zoning decision.

But it said a lower court used the wrong standard when it tossed out the Alliance’s claims. That lower court will now have to reconsider the case. The local zoning issue represents only one branch of the overall legal fight over the proposed development, which ultimately will have to get approvals at the local, state and federal levels. It’s a battle that’s already been going on for more than a decade, even as ownership over the land has changed, along with the development proposals.

Representatives for the proposed development, Northshore of Saugatuck, didn’t return a phone message Thursday afternoon, but the property’s owners told Stateside in 2017, they see no regulation that says the development can’t move forward.

“There is no conflict with any of the critical dune statutes,” developer Brian Bosgraaf said of the proposed marina in 2017. “Essentially creating this new water habitat in a regulatory sense is actually a net-positive.”

Bosgraaf is no longer involved in the Northshore of Saugatuck Development, according to a representative from his development company, Cottage Home.

Members of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance disagree that the Northshore Development can be a "net-positive", and Swan says the group will continue the fight as long as it will take.

“I’m much more optimistic now that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor,” Swan said. “And the laws are very clear. A project of this magnitude is prohibited.”

This story has been clarified to make it clear Brian Bosgraaf no longer represents the Northshore of Saugatuck development.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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