Uncategorized — April 25, 2011 at 7:00 am

Saugatuck Dunes threatened by a web of Republican influence in Michigan


Last week, I wrote about the connection between Congressman Fred Upton, the Emergency Financial Manager takeover of Benton Harbor and Aubrey McClendon, a millionaire developer and owner of the Chesapeake Oil natural gas company. In the piece, I talked a bit about McClendon’s lawsuits against Saugatuck Township in their efforts to prevent McClendon from developing a piece of duneland at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River known as the Dennison property. I also said this: “After McClendon purchased a large tract of duneland there, the Township rezoned the area making it impossible for him to develop it into a condo/recreation mecca similar to Harbor Shores.”

This was incorrect. The rezoning process of the area of land at the edge of the Saugatuck Dunes State Park that McClendon owns began in 2001 and continued two years later when the Township started their Master Plan revision. During the Master Plan update process, input was solicited from all interested parties for a period of time before the Plan is finalized. McClendon himself participated when his lawyers requested that the Township table the process. McClendon purchased the property in 2006, several years after the process had already begun. This is important to remember when considering what follows.

Last May, facing financially-draining lawsuits from McClendon, Saugatuck Township held an election asking its residents to approve a tax increase to pay for legal costs. The measure was approved by only two votes. However, due to an error by Township Clerk Jane Wright and her deputy, Lori Babinski, a recount was not possible. The two opened a sealed box containing ballots to inspect it under the direction of Allegan County Deputy Clerk Julia Ryan. Breaking the seal on the ballot box made a recount impossible. Ryan denies directing the two clerks to inspect the box.

McClendon tried to have the election voided but was unsuccessful when a judge ruled their was no evidence of “fraud, illegal voting or tampering”. However, Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, took it upon himself to charge the women with a criminal offense of vote tampering. The odd thing about this is that while he is going after the two Township clerks, he is allowing the County Deputy Clerk Julia Ryan and her boss, County Clerk Joyce Watts off the hook, despite suggestions that they gave improper instructions to the two Township officials.

And this is where it gets VERY shady. Court documents show that Julia Ryan was assisted in giving her statement on what happened by attorneys Jason Watts and Kathleen Bruinsma. Jason Watts is an employee of Aubrey McClendon, his “eyes and ears” in Saugatuck Township, if you will. He is also the son of County Clerk Joyce Watts. Kathleen Bruinsma is married to Jim Bruinsma, yet another of McClendon’s attorneys. So these two lawyers who work for McClendon came into a County building, used County resources, and helped Ryan to craft her statement. She is subsequently given a free pass while the two women she allegedly gave bad advice to are being facing criminal charges from our Republican attorney general.

Keep in mind that this all over an election to ask taxpayers to raise taxes to defend themselves from lawsuits by Aubrey McClendon. McClendon seems intent on bankrupting Saugatuck Township so that he can move forward with his plans to develop the former Dennison property. A great overview of all the players in McClendon’s web by the Holland Sentinel can be found HERE (pdf).

Saugatuck Township residents have good reason to fear any development of this land by Aubrey McClendon. He is part of a development in Oklahoma on Lake Tacoma called Pointe Vista. His group convinced a Republican governor Frank Keating to sell off a portion of the very-popular Tacoma Lake State Park to McClendon and his development company. McClendon, after promising to preserve the cultural history of the area promptly tore down an historic lodge on the land. He also managed to convince the local municipality to create a Tax Increment Financing district on the property so that he gets 90% of all tax revenue generated to help “improve” the property. Frank Keating now sits on the board of Chesapeake Oil, McClendon’s natural gas company.

McClendon’s suit against the Township continues and judge Paul Maloney, a man with ties to McClendon (see my previous post on this), has ruled in his favor on a couple of occasions including allowing the suit to go to federal court. Some question why Maloney has not recused himself in this case given his connections to McClendon.

One final piece to this is that the State of Michigan was considering moving 25 additional acres that are part of McClendon’s land into a protected dune status. The new head of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources & Environment, Dan Wyatt, a man appointed by Republican governor Rick Snyder, has shelved that proposal, a process that has been ongoing for two years, saying he needs “additional time to evaluate this matter”.

Aubrey McClendon appears to have powerful, mostly Republican friends. He is supported by the right-wing think tank, The Mackinac Center. Allegan County Clerk Joyce Watts and her Deputy Clerk Julia Ryan are helping him. He’s got Congessman Fred Upton in his corner. Attorney General Bill Schuette is assisting his efforts. A federal judge, Paul Maloney, regularly rules in his favor. Even the head of the MDNRE, Dan Wyatt is weighing in on his behalf.

In the meantime, with these odds and a seemingly endless amount of money stacked against them, Saugatuck Township continues to battle to save the Saugatuck Dunes from the sort of slash and burn development that Aubrey McClendon is well known for. As is often the case, McClendon can lose repeatedly in his efforts and can keep on trying. If the Township loses even once, the Saugatuck Dunes will be forever irreparably impacted to make a very rich man even richer.

David Swan, the President of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, describes the Saugatuck Dunes in this way:

Within the Saugatuck Dunes there are many resources — historical, ecological, cultural, recreational, spiritual and educational. These resources are the pistons of the regional economic engine.

For the sake of our unique and wonderful shoreline, I am fervently hoping Saugatuck Township continues to win.

For more on the effort to protect the Saugatuck Dunes along with a timeline of what has transpired, visit the website of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance.

I’m just sayin’…