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March 22, 2019 12:00 am

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Saugatuck Township Officials Are Looking At Eliminating Unenforceable Zoning Regulations

     In light of past legal settlement agreements with oil-and-gas magnate Aubrey McClendon, as well as a way to eliminate unenforceable zoning, Saugatuck Township officials are proposing to completely do away with certain zoning districts.

     Included in that proposal would be the elimination of certain parts of the township’s critical dunes overlay (dunes sensitive to erosion and protected by state and local regulation). 

     The Saugatuck Township Planning Commission had the discussion about the zoning proposal at its November meeting. McClendon’s 310 acres, fronting Lake Michigan and just north of the Kalamazoo River mouth, is administered by the Singapore Dunes development firm. 

     Planners see no need for R-4, a residential zoning with a minimum lot size of five acres that is only found in the Singapore Dunes property, because a 2012 settlement prohibits it from enforcing it. 

     They propose rezoning the property back to the prior zoning districts (R-1, R-2 and R-3). 

     Another settlement agreement in 2013 says the township cannot enforce or apply any of its provisions regulating the critical dune overlay - which certain areas of the Singapore Dunes property has - in a manner that is more restrictive than State of Michigan law.

     To address this, the planning commission, following Saugatuck Township Attorney Ron Bultje’s cue, is proposing to eliminate any part of the critical dunes regulation that infringes on the state law. 

     “It’s a good move on their part,” Singapore Dunes Attorney and Project Manager Stephen Neumer told The Observer Newspapers Monday, about the township’s intentions.

     The planning commission is drafting ordinance language at this time and preparing for a public hearing in January on the rezoning issue, and another one for the critical dunes issue in February. 

     “The R-4 zoning only affects the Singapore Dunes property and the planning commission would like to have our zoning mirror what is in the consent judgment for the property,” said Saugatuck Township Zoning Administrator Steve Cushion.

     “Their (planning commission) take is that R-4 is a ‘ghost’ zoning district due to the Consent Judgment on the property and should be eliminated,” he added.  

     Neumer also referred to the legal case. 

     “That is perfectly fine (the township’s proposed changes). It aligns with what the federal court required anyway; it essentially nullified R-4 relative to us (Singapore Dunes).” 

     The two settlement agreements with McClendon are indicative of a number of legal disputes the township has had with the property owner. 

     With regards to R-4 zoning, Singapore Dunes, in its suit filed against the township in 2010, claimed the township illegally rezoned the property. 

     Critics countered that the suit was a way for the property owner to circumvent local ordinances, as they argued he had done a number of other times.

     In its 2013 lawsuit concerning critical dunes, Singapore Dunes argued that a 2012 Michigan legislature amendment to the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act (NREPA) prevents local government from regulating critical dunes areas in a matter that is more rigid and restrictive than state law.

     Currently, only the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality can enforce critical dunes’ regulations.

     Critical dune regulations can come under local jurisdiction, but it does entail a cost and responsibility, said Neumer. 

     “If the local government wants to regulate critical dunes, then the state steps back, but they cannot regulate it any different than the state would do so. It’s an expensive enterprise; you need engineers, a staff, and need to establish laws and submit the ordinance to the state for review.” 

     Again, the settlement concerning critical dunes had its opponents as well, including groups such as the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, which contended the township had accepted the settlement too hastily and argued that NREPA did not preempt all local zoning regulating critical dunes overlay. 

     As for the Singapore Dune property itself, Neumer  said, “It is not for sale.” 

     He added, “We are working on a revised (development) plan.”

Saugatuck Township Officials Are Looking At Eliminating Unenforceable Zoning Regulations

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