Zoning questions linger in dunes land-use settlement in Saugatuck

Jul 27, 2011

A federal judge still has to approve a settlement between a private developer and Saugatuck Township to resolve a long-standing land-use case. But there is already talk of a new lawsuit at the state level if the federal judge approves the agreement.

The developer owns more than 300 acres, including coastal dune land along Lake Michigan. The proposed agreement would allow a golf course, a marina, a hotel, private homes – maybe more with special zoning variances.

Saugatuck Township Attorney Ron Bultje says the developer will still have to go through the normal planning process. That includes getting the township’s planning commission to approve all development plans.

“The township planning commission would not have the authority to say ‘you know that’s a great site plan for a marina but a marina just doesn’t fit on this property.”

But that’s not totally unusual. Planning commissions are always supposed to site a reason for denying site plans for any proposed developments.

Bultje says the township board is agreeing in general terms that things like a marina or a hotel are acceptable uses for that property.

“In that sense the consent judgment does make a concession. We don’t have the right, the planning commission will not have the right, to say ‘on this 300 acres there is no place for a hotel.’ We can’t say that.”

An attorney for a group opposing the development says that goes against state zoning laws. John Bauckham says it’s illegal for the township to give up its right to decide whether a marina or a hotel or anything else is an acceptable use on any property.

He cites a Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in the 2004 case Iverness Mobile Homes Community v. Bedford Township. In it the judge says the township’s power to zone and rezone is a legislative function and that the governing body may not contract away its legislative powers.

“The true test is whether the contract itself deprives a governing body or its successor of a discretion which public policy demands should be left unimpaired.”

Bauckman says that’s exactly what the settlement would do.

He is urging the parties to renegotiate a new deal to avoid a lawsuit at the state level.