Township Votes To End Legal Wrangling Over Critical Dunes Issues
The Saugatuck Township Board voted 4-to-1 to approve a consent judgment involving interpretation of the Critical Dunes Act between the township and Singapore Dunes, LLC at a special meeting last Friday afternoon.
The agreement stipulates the township will not enforce any part of its critical dunes overlay rules that are more restrictive than the state of Michigan rules.
Critics of the agreement - primarily opponents of the planned development of property owned by Aubrey McClendon - contend the consent judgment is severe, saying it is erroneously premised on the assumption that township zoning rules are more restrictive than the state’s.
Those opponents say they believe the township decision essentially stamps out certain safeguards meant for local control and regulation.
The agreement will now go before a judge who will approve it or deny it.
With the exception of Saugatuck Township Trustee Roy McIlwaine who presented the dissenting vote, the board cited concerns about further financially burdening the township with legal fees as the reason for their approval.
“Maybe it’s time to stop, take a breather and slow down,” township resident Jon Helmrich told the board before their decision. Echoing what other audience members said, including members of the environmental preservation group Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA), Helmrich noted that the public had only about 48 hours to review the legal document.
The meeting was posted at 10:30 a.m. Thursday and was scheduled for 4 p.m. Friday at Laketown Township Hall. The Saugatuck Township Hall is currently being renovated.
“(This vote today) gives the impression that the board is hiding something or at the very least, there is something that the board knows that we (the public) don’t know,” said Helmrich.
McIlwaine did not concur with the suggestion of “trickery,” but nonetheless agreed on the calls for more time and opportunity to review the legal document before it proceeded to court.
“I just got this (the agreement paperwork) yesterday morning,” he said. “We are not being transparent with holding this public hearing and voting on it today. There are too many red flags here.”
In its May 23 filing with the Allegan County 48th Circuit Court, Singapore Dunes - Oklahoma City natural gas magnate McClendon’s development arm - contends a 2012 Michigan legislature amendment to the Natural Resource and Environmental Protection Act prevents local governments from regulating critical dunes areas in a matter that is more rigid and restrictive than state law.
The filing also stated that only the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality can enforce critical dunes regulation.
“We are being asked to be consistent with the way the Planning Commission has implemented its critical dunes overlay provisions,” Saugatuck Township Attorney Ron Bultje explained to the board.
The language of the critical dunes overlay is precisely one of the salient issues over which the SDCA butted heads with both Singapore Dunes and the township, claiming 35 percent open space must apply to site condominiums in the critical dunes overlay in the R-3b district within the proposed McClendon development site.
The SDCA appealed the Saugatuck Township Zoning Board of Appeals’ (ZBA) approval of the developer’s preliminary plan, which includes 25 homes on 81 acres fronting Lake Michigan, just north of the mouth of Kalamazoo River.
In an earlier decision, the Saugatuck Township Zoning Board of Appeals ruled the SDCA lacked any standing to appeal.
The SDCA then responded with a May 2 filing before Allegan County’s 48th Circuit Court, asking it to vacate that township ruling.
McClendon’s entire 310-acres of duneland is for sale for $40 million, including lots being sold individually.
Bultje said that the township may well opt to fight the lawsuit against Singapore Dunes, but would have do so with taxpayers’ dollars. He further announced the township had run out of funding from its legal insurance policy.
The township has continuously been plagued with financial hardship due to mounting legal fees to the point that as of the end of 2012, the township had dished out more than $430,000 fending off a McClendon federal lawsuit.
Insurance took up $100,00 of that total and donations amounted to $45,000. A settlement was reached in June 2012, but more lawsuits soon started coming.
Up till June of this year, the township’s insurance policy covered the two most recent lawsuits. In 2010, the township electorate approved a 0.5-mill levy, generating $247,435 to pay for legal expenditures.