PWIR (Special Edition): This Time, Goliath May Win

A weekly update on environmental policy happenings generally produced by Ryan Werder, Political Director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters (Twitter: @rjwerder)… but this special edition comes from Michigan LCV Executive Director, Lisa Wozniak!

"The camps gathered for war, with the valley between them…"*

Named one of America’s most endangered historic places, theSaugatuck Dunes and the surrounding area are magical in their untouched, natural beauty. Right now, however, this fragile land is gravely threatened by unnecessary, greedy development.

If you haven’t been to the Saugatuck Dunes yet, for the sake of this story, it is important that you see at least a couple snapshots of the Dunes. You’ll see why this is so important. Here is an aerial picture of the Dunes and, for good measure, a moonlit picture of the beach, too.

For the past many years, a citizens’ group has engaged in a David-like struggle in holding a Goliath at bay. They have been successful in securing the purchase of the southern portion of a property known as “the Dennison," and they have prevented Goliath from building his proposed "McMansions," a marina, a nine-hole golf course, and a multi-story hotel on the northern portion. But, with last week’s announcement that Saugatuck Township is poised to cut a deal with Goliath on the zoning related to the northern parcel, David is perilously near a final fall.

"Goliath’s spear was like a weaver’s rod, its iron point weighed six hundred shekels…"

Five years ago, a billionaire from Oklahoma, Aubrey McClendon, swooped in at the final moment to purchase the Dennison property by outbidding the state of Michigan with a 39 million dollar bid to secure some of our state’s most beautiful, pristine and critical sand dunes.

McClendon is no stranger to murky business dealings. He owns Chesapeake Energy, the Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly the Seattle Supersonics, before he reneged on his promise to keep the Sonics in their home town), and a former Oklahoma state park. Since outbidding the state, McClendon has aggressively battled Saugatuck Township for the right to develop this long-preserved and protected natural area to the extent that the Township put a special millage before the voters to support their legal battles.

The citizen’s group, the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, formed shortly after McClendon purchased the property and announced his development plans. Comprised of individuals from across West Michigan, the group meticulously researched and documented the impact that McClendon’s plans will have on the eco-system and the area economy, including historic and artistic treasures like the Oxbow School of Art.

"Goliath shouted his usual defiance, and David heard it…"

Extraordinary places like the Saugatuck/Dennison Dunes define far more than the adjacent villages. While Saugatuck and Douglas, MI certainly bask in the beauty and benefits of this Pure Michigan site, so does the entire region. The world-class and long-preserved Saugatuck/Dennison sand dunes, and their location on the shores of Lakes Michigan, serve to define West Michigan.

"Goliath said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?’…"

The West Michigan Strategic Alliance is adamant about “smart growth” and the preservation of critical environmental areas. This impressive organization was pulled together in June 2000 by a diverse group of community leaders from the greater Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon areas to address the effects of rapid population growth and urbanization on the region’s quality of life. Without a doubt, McClendon’s development flies in the face of the vision put forth by this important private/public partnership.

Then, in 2009, after years of negotiation, private/public collaboration, and fundraising, McClendon agreed to sell the Southern Dennison to the West Michigan Land Conservancy. With monies put forth by private citizens and the State of Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund, a portion of the pristine natural area was successfully preserved.

Believing that this concession would provide him with carte blancheaccess to the northern portion for his slightly curtailed, yet still audacious development plans, McClendon and his team of attorneys continued their siege of the Township.

"David ran quickly to the battle line, reaching into his bag and taking out a stone…"

Fast-forward to June 2011 and McClendon is not only in the local news, but also in national news. Due to his over-bearing, far-reaching, and hard-hitting tactics (not unlike his funding of the Swiftboat Initiative in 2004), it appears McClendon has worn the Township down to a point where they can no longer withstand his barrage of lawsuits.

After all these years of battle, there will be a defining moment: a public hearing scheduled for TODAY. If you are like me, even in times like these, it is still hard to believe that money can buy access and reverse of zoning laws, to pave over pristine, long-preserved natural places like the Dennison.

If McClendon gets his way, the development on the Dennison will not only dramatically alter an irreplaceable landscape, it will threaten the unique nature of the Saugatuck/Douglas community and the long-term vision for West Michigan’s future.

Now, pick up your sling

I invite you to join me today at the Saugatuck Township public hearing; the details are below. Or, if you cannot make it tonight, please contact township officials to let them know what we think. Let’s make sure that Goliath hears loud and clear that the people of Michigan support David.

  • What: Public meeting of Saugatuck Township Board to discuss the damaging potential settlement
  • When: TONIGHT, July 18th, 6:00p
  • Where: Saugatuck High School (401 Elizabeth Street, Saugatuck, MI 49453). Click here for directions.
  • Who: Join Michigan LCV and the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance
  • Why: If we fail here the damage to the Dunes will be irreversable and set a dangerous precedent for future lakeshore preservation along the Great Lakes.

Until next week,

Lisa Wozniak
Executive Director, Michigan LCV

*All biblical quotes in this edition are drawn from the story of David and Goliath as told in the Book of Samuel 1:17

P.S. As much as I hope you enjoyed this special edition of the Political Week in Review, Ryan will be picking up the pen again next week. If you’d like to learn more about the fight to preserve the Saugatuck Dunes in the meantime, please feel free to email me at lisa or visit Thanks!

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