DEQ Public Hearing On McClendon Land Road Proposal Sparks Pro & Con Debate
The engineering team working for the owner of the 130-acre duneland just north of the Kalamazoo River mouth says that its proposed 20-foot-wide, nearly two-mile winding road leading to a proposed development at the lakeshore meets Saugatuck Township road requirements, ensures safety and constitutes the lowest impact to state regulated critical dunes and wetlands.
However, most of the more than 30 people who spoke at a public hearing hosted by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) on Monday night argued the road meant destruction of dune habitat and called on the DEQ to deny developer Singapore Dunes’ application for an access road.
Many even asked the DEQ to help purchase the property for the public which would make for a state-protected, contiguous duneland preservation area reaching from the north point of the Saugatuck Dunes State Park to south of Oval Beach along the lakeshore.
All of the Singapore Dunes property recently went up for sale for a $40-million price tag.
Many of the people who spoke at the public hearing were either members or supporters of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA), a group which has continuously opposed Singapore Dunes’ development proposal from the very beginning,
Contending it wants to preserve dunes and their ecosystem. Singapore Dunes is the local land firm representing the interest of Oklahoma City natural gas magnate and developer Aubrey McClendon.
Frank Alfieri, a member of the SDCA board, told the DEQ representatives, “It is my opinion that the proposed permit is yet another example of poor stewardship of the dunes. It demonstrates the need for the public to acquire this property. I ask you to deny it and buy it.”
Rachel Hood, executive director of the West Michigan Environmental Action Council, read from a prepared statement, saying in part:
“As widely reported, the proposed road would run over (rather than around) dune contours and goes on to ring and ultimately destroy the property’s inter-dunal wetlands. Over 500 trees would be lost, interrupting the need for contiguous habitat for endangered bird species.
“Over 36,000 pounds of fill would potentially introduce invasive species and would disturb the hydrology of the site by affecting the wetlands on the property, which are all inter-dependent ecosystems—if one goes, so go the rest,” said Hood.
She further argued the stormwater from the road would pollute the wetlands by erosion of the dune structure.
“The dunes have been here long before we arrived, and they should remain until the end of time, and can with care,” said former state lawmaker Patty Birkholz, now a board member of the Great Lakes Protection Fund.
Birkholz proposed a “more circuitous route” to access the development that follows the contours of the dunes.
The proposal affects nearly 15 acres of the McClendon property and calls for more than 35,000 cubic yards of fill. Representatives of the developer say they’ve brought in scientists to study the area and try to come up with a road proposal that disturbs the least amount of sensitive area.
“We understand this land is significant and valuable,” said Jim Bruinsma, the attorney representing Singapore Dunes. “We have approached this process with this in mind. No corners have been cut in preparing this application.”
Singapore Dunes has spent nearly $350,000 putting together the application, Bruinsma said.
Still, opponents claim the road can be built elsewhere on the development.
“There are plenty of alternative sites for a road that will allow Mr. McClendon a substantial return on his investment, without affecting the interdunal area and without disturbing the buried remains of Singapore,” said David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.
Other individuals apperaing before the DEQ expressed their support for the road project.
Ken Denison, who previously owned the McClendon land, said the road project was minimal and necessary, citing it was “the only way” to both provide a safe access road to any future development and the project proposal as submitted would cut the least number of trees.
Denison also pointed out that Singapore Dunes’ application calls for the replacement of 500 trees and using native grasses and soils.
Denison said he lives along the entrance where the access road is being proposed. His family sold the property to McClendon in 2006.
“I know more than most people about the property and I know how beautiful it is,” said Denison. Noting the proposed development was an issue itself and apart from the road issue, Denison added, “I do have a concern about the (current) road (that services the property). The current road (as it exists) is simply not suitable for multi-family (development) to enjoy.”
The proposed road plan would incorporate part of an existing road, along with its proposed widening and extension of it.
As for any measures to protect critical dune areas, he said, “The dunes are going to move where they want to move anyway. It’s going to be a maintenance issue (in any case).”
The DEQ hearing will be followed by a 10 day-period during which the public can submit comments about the road request. The state the regulatory agency then will either approve, approve with modifications, or deny the application.
A decision by the DEQ is expected this fall.