Heated Comments Fly At Saugatuck Township Planning Commission Meeting As Officials Vote To Approve NorthShore Development Project
It got personal, vicious and anger-ridden at Monday’s more than four-hour-long Saugatuck Township Planning Commission meeting, as township officials and audience members debated over the proposed NorthShore development, just north of the Kalamazoo River mouth and consisting of proposed 23, million-dollar-plus homes surrounding a 1,600-foot-long marina.
Notwithstanding the strong appeals from the public—no one spoke in favor of the project and over 10 people made comments in opposition to it—township planning commission members voted 4-1 to approve the final site condominium project and detailed PUD (planned unit development).
Saugatuck Township Planning Commission Chair Margaret Baker Conklin and Planning Commission Members Brad Rudich, Chris Lozano and Andy Prietz voted yes. Planning Commission Member Kathleen Miller Cook voted no. Planning Commission Members Bill Rowe and Edward Welk were not present.
The meeting started out as standing-room only, but people slowly drifted away as the night progressed.
The marina—which entails excavating more than 241,000 cubic yards of sand off of the Kalamazoo River, close to the river mouth—still requires a joint permit approval by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a review process that will include, among others things, review of the impact of critical dune boundaries and effects on navigable safety issues.
Last week, some 200 folks attended a DEQ public hearing on the topic, with more than 40 people speaking out against the project raising various issues and concerns about a 300-acre land with a lot of history, including the 1870’s lumber town of Singapore now buried underneath the sand dunes. One person spoke in favor of it.
Despite the township approval, the construction of the development cannot legally start because it is also part of an ongoing lawsuit before Allegan County Circuit Court Judge Kevin Cronin, filed by the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA) in June, appealing the planning commission’s preliminary approval of the project, challenging the very plan the township officials gave the final green light to during Monday’s meeting.
With that pending litigation and a DEQ and Army Corps permit review still far from complete, many at Monday’s meeting wondered aloud why the planning commission was moving forward with approval, “putting the horse before the cart.”
“I am totally perplexed this item is even on the agenda,” Jon Helmrich told the planning commission. “Right now that (marina) is a phantom item. What or who is pushing this rush job?”
Helmrich is a township resident associated with the SDCA as well as the West Michigan Environmental Action Council.
There were several items on the agenda, but even before the marina and condominiums discussion began in earnest, things got heated.
Saugatuck Planning Commission Chair Margaret Baker Conklin, after taking a deep breath, told the audience,”We are tired—we are trying to do everything to protect landowners’ rights.”
This prompted someone in the public to loudly interject with, “No, we want you to follow the township ordinance.”
Conklin retorted with, “So many of you are here with your anger and vile hatred of us just because we are on the planning commission.”
She went on to insinuate that some who voice grievances are entitled individuals that do not appreciate all the work performed by the planning commission. She singled out the president of the SDCA, David Swan, although he was not present at the meeting.
“We (planning commission members) make $50 a meeting. How much does David Swan make?”
This remark was met with immediate grumbling of disapproval by many in the audience. The exchange set the tone for how the meeting would end.
The SDCA is the preservationist group which also fought long and hard against the development plans from the previous owner, the late natural gas magnate Aubrey McClendon whose proposal was much larger in scope than NorthShore’s.
Jeff Padnos, with his NorthShore land firm, purchased the McClendon property at the beginning of the year for an undisclosed figure. The property was listed for $40 million in 2016. New owner Padnos is working with Holland-based builder Cottage Home on the development proposal.
Cottage Home President Brian Bosgraaf says that 200 acres of the 300-acre property will remain untouched and will incorporate preservation easements. There are a total of 40 single-family homes the developer is planning to construct on the parcel.
In its lawsuit filed in Allegan County Circuit Court, the SDCA is attempting to overturn the Saugatuck Township Planning Commission’s preliminary approval for special land use of the marina resort, arguing it was proceedurally deficient and violated the township’s own ordinances.
The lawsuit argues that the planning commission, in its preliminary approval, failed to abide by those laws against excavating existing channels to increase water frontage and regulations pertaining to the removal of multiple tons of sand within Michigan’s critical dune boundaries.
SDCA and others point out that digging out more than 241,000 cubic yards of sand to construct the marina constitutes sand dune mining under Michigan law. DEQ officials say that it would be sand mining if the developer was planning on selling the sand.
Critics also contend that the development proposal is not harmonious with the surrounding area nor is it consistent with the 2016 Tri-Community Master Plan, prerequisites for approvals.
Many of these above issues were raised by the public speakers Monday.
Some attendees were outraged at the planning commission’s procedure, arguing tha township officials made several changes to the agenda with little or no prior public announcement.
Immediately following the meeting, SDCA Vice President Marcia Perry admonished the planning commission and Saugatuck Township Zoning Administrator Steve Kushion for what she deemed a flawed process and not allowing any public comment after the vote.
“Nothing changed (in the agenda before the meeting once it was publicized),” said Kushion when challenged by Perry.
“Of course it changed. You are flat-out wrong about that and you all know there was a change this afternoon,” retorted Perry.
“If it (the change) wasn’t added it is because our internet was out for a week,” said Kushion, apparently contradicting his earlier statement.
“Okay, let’s talk about that. How can you have proper correspondence coming in when you didn’t have email communication… that is a violation of the open meetings act…
“Obviously, this is very flawed meeting, a very flawed process. It’s not over yet,” said Perry.