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The proposed Northshore of Saugatuck development has faced scrutiny for years, particularly regarding plans for a marina along the Kalamazoo River channel leading into Lake Michigan. The proposed Northshore of Saugatuck development has faced scrutiny for years, particularly regarding plans for a marina along the Kalamazoo River channel leading into Lake Michigan. MIBIZ PHOTO: Abigail Ham

CONSTRUCTION AND CONSERVATION: A yearslong dispute over the Northshore of Saugatuck development is revived amid recent court activity

BY Sunday, October 23, 2022 06:00pm

SAUGATUCK TWP. — Controversy over a multi-purpose development on the mouth of the Kalamazoo River in Saugatuck Township will drag on for at least a few more months amid recent court developments. 

A local environmental action group and involved tribes are optimistic that a Michigan Supreme Court ruling in their favor this summer will mean an Allegan County circuit judge can soon turn to the substance of a suit they filed against the developers in 2018. If they win, the controversial Northshore of Saugatuck development could be sent to the local planning commission for reassessment. 

However, the developers believe the project is on track and expect to soon receive a federal historical review clearance. The team is also in the process of reapplying to extend a state environmental permit originally granted in 2018.

Northshore of Saugatuck, a limited liability company owned by local philanthropists Jeff and Peg Padnos, has owned the property since 2016, and is in the process of developing the property. Development plans include an already operational commercial area, about 40 homes and a marina. 

The marina has become a flashpoint for project opponents, including the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance (SDCA), a group of Saugatuck and Douglas residents concerned about environmental and historical preservation, and two local Native American tribes. 

The property is the former home of a Broward boat factory and Singapore, a historic logging town. It also falls within historical Potawatomi land and is partially within a state-designated critical dune area.

While the SDCA and local tribes worry about the development’s effects on nearby wetlands, the historic site of Singapore, local wild rice and lake sturgeon populations, and culturally significant items in the area, the developer maintains that development of the property was inevitable and that Northshore’s plans are significantly more conservation-focused than previous owners’. 

The property by right could hold as many as about 300 homes, but Northshore plans to build only about 40, leaving large chunks of land as protected conservation areas, according to lead builder Scott Bosgraaf. Northshore has also donated a parcel of land to Saugatuck Township as a potential municipal well site.

“Northshore has taken the responsibility of developing this very special piece of property in our community with the greatest care,” Bosgraaf said. “We have controlled, studied, modified construction methods, restored areas and adjusted when and wherever possible to attain these goals.”

Clash of stakeholders

The SDCA has opposed the development, particularly the marina, since it was approved by Saugatuck’s planning commission in 2017. Two local Native American tribes — the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi — joined the SDCA in appealing the formerly named Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to permit the proposed marina in 2018.

The SDCA maintains that the development violates both local zoning ordinance and state critical dune laws, and conflicts with the Tri-Community Master Plan jointly developed by Saugatuck Township, the city of Saugatuck and the village of Douglas. 

Marina construction would involve removing about 250,000 tons of sand from the site. The sand would be deposited in a large existing hole, also on Northshore land.

Michigan’s Critical Dune Area Program requires activities “which significantly alter the physical characteristics of a critical dune area or for a contour change in a critical dune area” to acquire a permit from the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE). The state granted Northshore the needed five-year permit in 2018. With the expiration date looming, the developers have now begun the process of reapplying.

Saugatuck Township’s zoning ordinance should prohibit construction of the Northshore marina, according to the SDCA. A court has yet to rule on this question, and Bosgraaf was unable to comment on ongoing litigation.

SDCA board member David Swan said at a town hall in Saugatuck on Sept. 27 that the marina is contradictory to the Tri-Community Master Plan’s goals of supporting the area’s tourist economy by preserving the environment and historic character. The township has also cited the Master Plan’s attention to environmental and historic preservation in comments highlighting the significance of the property to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in 2020.

However, Bosgraaf argues that the development is in line with the Plan’s goals for waterfront mixed-use areas. 

In 2018, the SDCA sued Northshore, alleging the company knowingly violated Saugatuck Township zoning ordinance. An Allegan County judge ruled that the group did not have standing to pursue such a suit, so the SDCA appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals. After the Court of Appeals upheld Allegan’s decision, the SDCA took the case to the Michigan Supreme Court, which in July 2022 ruled that the wrong standards had been used for determining standing. 

The SDCA is now back in court in Allegan, with a hearing tentatively scheduled for the end of this year.

Scott Howard, legal counsel to the SDCA, said he hopes the standing question will be resolved quickly so that the court can consider the language of the zoning ordinance at the heart of the matter. 

“The Coastal Alliance strongly believes the facts and the law support its right to appeal the zoning decision, and a ruling that allows us to finally proceed to hearing the merits of our appeal is all that we are asking for,” Howard said.

The SDCA has proposed a series of alternative plans for the property that do not include a marina. Saugatuck Township has urged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to consider the viability of those plans as Northshore’s plans move through the permitting process, according to documents provided by Township Manager Daniel DeFranco. 

According to Bosgraaf, however, the alternative plans aren’t feasible because of wave action in the channel.

Environmental and historical concerns

The SDCA and the tribes are concerned about the marina construction’s effect on surrounding wetlands. Northshore has modified construction plans in an effort to address hydrological concerns. John Swimmer, chief legal counsel for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, said the tribe is not satisfied with Northshore’s efforts and remains opposed to the project. The SDCA isn’t satisfied, either.

Swan, of the SDCA, said original plans for the dewatering process required for marina construction would have lowered surrounding groundwater levels by 14 feet. According to Swan, the current plans would lower surrounding groundwater levels by 6 feet.

The SDCA has worked with hydrologists, biologists, landscape architects and historians in developing their opposition to Northshore’s plans. Those experts concluded that the removal of sand from the area will “significantly impair globally rare wetland complexes on the property and in the area,” Howard said. 

Northshore has done its own significant hydrological testing and has modified dewatering plans to minimize impact, said Bosgraaf, adding that the current plans would only lower surrounding groundwater levels by about 2 inches.

The tribes are concerned about the marina’s effect on local sturgeon populations and wild rice, which have cultural significance to the Potawatomi. 

Sturgeon migrate upriver to breed, which would be impeded by increased boat traffic from the marina, said John Rodwan, environmental department director for the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi. The development could also disturb local wild rice restoration programs as well as critical habitats for shorebirds and dune grasses, Rodwan said. 

Because the site has historic and cultural significance, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is reviewing the property to determine whether the development would affect historic and cultural preservation in the area. According to Bosgraaf, the federal agency will be issuing a final determination-of-effects letter soon. He expects the finding to be that the development will not negatively affect wild rice or lake sturgeon.

The mouth of the Kalamazoo River also is the last undeveloped river mouth on Lake Michigan in West Michigan, Rodwan said. 

“Frankly, [river mouths] are sacred places for the tribe … it would be tragic to develop that. We just don’t have that type of irreplaceable resource anymore,” Rodwan said.

Along with preventing environmental harm, the tribe aims to protect “cultural items, funerary items and sacred items on the site,” Swimmer said.

The SDCA also believes construction of the marina would damage the historic site of Singapore.

During construction of the boat factory on the property in the 1970s, most of the remains of Singapore were plowed to one side, into an area now on the western edge of Northshore’s proposed marina. Northshore has adjusted plans for the marina to avoid disturbing that area, Bosgraaf said. 

Two years of archaeological work on the planned marina area have turned up primarily objects left over from the Broward factory, some items from Singapore and one piece of flint that may date to Potawatomi presence in the area, Bosgraaf said. Any inadvertent discoveries of Potawatomi artifacts during construction will be turned over to the tribes. Northshore plans to keep archaeological monitoring ongoing during construction.

Nevertheless, Rodwan said the tribe “would like to see the permits denied and the traditional cultural property be left as is.” 

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Cottage Home is still involved with the Northshore of Saugatuck development.

Read 2341 times Last modified on Monday, 24 October 2022 11:27
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