Blog: Lisa Wozniak & Ryan Mark-Griffin

How does the Great Lakes State become the Great Conservation State? This week Lisa Wozniak and Ryan Mark-Griffin of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters unroll an environmental health and safety blueprint for 2012.

Lisa Wozniak: Voiding of Saugatuck Dunes settlement supports local government

Imagine this:  As a hard-working Michigander, you have saved carefully over the years and managed to put two children through college. Along the way, you have also invested in a beautiful piece of property near Lake Michigan. It's not a huge piece of land nor is it on the water, but it's close enough to the lake that you can get there easily, while also accessing the lovely towns of Holland, Saugatuck, Douglas, and Fennville. It's a gift to yourself and your family after years of hard work. It's a true slice of Pure Michigan®.

But then, out of nowhere, comes a wealthy, out-of-state developer who, after years of lawsuits and pressure on the local government, wins a "settlement" to build a nine-story hotel, 66-slip marina, houses, condominiums, and a nine-hole golf course on his newly acquired 320-acre property…which is less than a quarter mile from your own little slice of paradise.

The developer's plans are inconsistent with the township's master plan and would never be allowed under current or former zoning laws, but the wealthy developer eventually gets his way.  The Township officials, who tried at first to withstand the pressure coming from the developer and his high-powered attorneys, give in -- ignore residents' pleas and "settle" --due, in large part, to the inconceivably high costs of defending themselves from the developer's claims.

This can't be true?! Unfortunately, this very scenario has been playing out in Saugatuck Township.  But, in a strange twist of good luck on November 1, a U.S. District Court Judge nullified the 'settlement'. The Judge's decision effectively stalled all development plans for the land -- a major victory for those fighting to preserve the dunes.

But why does this matter, especially if you don't own land adjacent to the proposed settlement? And, why does a statewide organization like the Michigan League of Conservation Voters care so much about such a local issue? Because it is a precedent-setting situation that should capture the attention and concern of Michigan townships far and wide, as well as property owners throughout the state who are abiding by township zoning laws while wealthy developers are financially navigating their way around and through the system.  The negotiated "settlement" had potential statewide implications because it would have set a terrible precedent. Most notably, the "settlement" would have illegally bound the ability of all future Saugatuck Township Boards from adhering to existing zoning ordinances.  This is, ultimately, one of the main reasons why the judge chose to nullify it.

In addition, the negotiated "settlement" completely removed the Township's legislative process, giving all the power in these local land battles to the federal courts. This meant that local residents and landowners would have been shut out of the debate…unless they wanted to get involved in a federal lawsuit. 

The Saugatuck battle is hardly over. The focus now shifts back to the township, where hard decisions will still have to be made. As Michigan LCV shifts our focus and continues our advocacy, it is important to remember that there are elections next year. The case of 'Township vs. McClenndon' should serve as a reminder to us all that elections, from township to Supreme Court, are extraordinarily important. If Michiganders get involved and elect environmental/conservation champions to offices at all levels of government, we won't have to rely on good luck at the last minute to protect the Michigan we love.