A federal judge has signed off on a long-standing legal dispute between Saugatuck Township and Oklahoma energy executive Aubrey McClendon. The case revolves around the potential development of 300 acres of land McClendon owns that includes critical dunes near Lake Michigan.
The judge threw out zoning laws that would restrict most development on the lakefront property. That’s because the township adopted them without giving McClendon’s company, Singapore Dunes LLC, proper notice. While the judge approved a consent decree settling the legal case, he did not rule on the settlement agreement – a legally binding contract – the township and the developer signed.
Under that agreement the developer has ninety days to apply for a zoning variance to build condos, a marina and hotel in the now mostly residential neighborhood.
“It does sound like he’s going to try to rezone land through a bunch of different variances,” said David Swan, President of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. The grassroots group worries any major development would hurt the critical dunes’ fragile ecosystem. Plus he says the plans go against the broader community’s master plan to keep that area as a low density development.
“We’re happy,” Saugatuck Township attorney Ron Bultje said of the judge’s order.
He says the agreement closes one chapter in the years-long legal battle.
"But it opens up all kinds of new chapters. And every one of those new chapters has the possibility of disagreement and conflict and litigation,” Bultje said.
Bultje listed off four possible scenarios that could prompt new lawsuits. These would be related to state zoning laws and the binding settlement. If those cases were brought, they’d play out in local and state courts; not the federal level. Bultje says he would not be surprised if another lawsuit surfaces.
Singapore Dunes LLC representative Stephen Neumer says they’re thrilled with the judge’s ruling. He sort of groans at the notion of another lawsuit.
"The township voters are tired of this adversarial process and would like to work with us in a constructive way. Will there be another lawsuit? I don’t know. I hope not,” Neumer said.
Swan declined to speculate whether his group would appeal a decision, if the zoning board approves variances for the development. But he says the alliance will continue to keep a close eye on the development.
“We have real skin in this game so we’re here for generations to come,” Swan said.