Third-party groups hope to weigh in on possible Saugatuck deal involving coastal dunes
Three non-profit organizations are asking a federal judge to let them weigh in on a proposed settlement between a private developer and Saugatuck Township. Both parties have agreed to the deal, but a federal judge must approve it. The agreement would resolve a longstanding land-use case.
Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon owns more than 300 acres in the township, including coastal dune land along Lake Michigan.
The non-profit groups are Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, Laketown Alliance for Neighborly Development, and the Kalamazoo River Protection Association. The groups filed a motion in federal court asking the judge to hold a fairness hearing. They are asking that the judge outline rules for participating in such a hearing. These groups do not think the settlement is reasonable, legal or in the public’s best interest.
Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance treasurer Sheldon Wettack says he understands the township board (each member is called individually in the lawsuit) has been under a lot of pressure.
“But this settlement sets a dangerous precedent because it suggests that there is one set of rules for investors with deep pockets, who are willing to threaten the township with bankruptcy and another set of rules for everyone else.”
The groups point specifically to the part of proposed agreement that would allow a 25-suite hotel and limited retail development to service guests in the district. Neither would be allowed under current zoning laws, but would be allowed in general terms, if the settlement is approved.
The developer and the township say the settlement would not “displace” zoning rules.
Dayle Harrison is with the Kalamazoo River Protection Association. He is also a township planning commissioner so he works regularly with members of the township board.
“This idea of them being sued personally has scared the hell out of them quite frankly,” Harrison said. “It’s really made them very leery and worry about their own personal asset base so I think the fear factor probably overruled anything else in making a decision.”
The township is also running out of money for lawyers.
It is unclear when U.S. District Court Judge Paul Maloney will make any decision in the case. The legal test for a fairness hearing is considered to be lower than trying to become a third party to the case, although the group certainly doesn't consider this the last legal option.