Corporatism, Michigan, Michigan Republicans — April 23, 2013 at 6:57 am

Republican law weakening protection of Michigan’s dunes bearing fruit for developers, sensitive dunes at risk


Elections have consequences and sometimes they’re permanent consequences

Photo by Anne C. Savage

Lost in the shuffle of last year’s orgy of Republican overreach in the Michigan legislature was the passage of the legislation that became Public Act 297. Signed into law August, the law is described, in part, as “an act to protect the environment and natural resources of the state”. In his announcement about the signing of the bill into law with the Orwellian title “Snyder signs bill protecting sand dunes, rights of homeowners”, Governor Snyder had the audacity to say that he “worked with the bill sponsor to ensure Michigan’s dunes are protected for the benefit of present and future generations.”

What the law does, in fact, is quite the opposite:

Michigan’s freshwater sand dunes are Pure Michigan at its best—they’re the reason Good Morning America named Sleeping Bear Dunes the most beautiful place in America in 2011.

Recognizing this decades ago, Governor William Milliken and later Governor James Blanchard helped the state establish our Critical Dunes Act. It recognizes the freshwater dunes—mostly found along Lake Michigan on the western Lower Peninsula and the southern shore of the UP—as globally rare and in particular need of additional protection from harmful development.

Michigan set up a permitting process to ensure that development and activity in the dunes are carefully reviewed in order to ensure the natural migration and shifting of sand and protection for rare flora and fauna.

Now, the Michigan Association of Realtors and the Homebuilders Association have found some allies at the Capitol to help them gut this act. Proposed legislation removes references to the “public interest” in protecting these areas or minimizing harmful impacts. It adds convoluted new language making it much easier for developers to permanently alter the shifting dunes with roads, driveways and houses. The plan makes it more difficult for local residents or resource experts to have a say in their fate.

The law is now getting its first customers. In the incredible Saugatuck Dunes, already being threatened by skabillionaire natural gas magnate and developer Aubrey McClendon, a church camp owned by the Presbytery of Chicago is being sold to a developer who will build 12 homes on land he’ll sell for $1 million an acre:

The dunes where inner-city Chicago kids got to see the majesty of Lake Michigan while at summer camp may soon be selling for $1 million an acre.

Grand Rapids based developer David Barker has a $10 million deal with the Presbytery of Chicago to purchase the 130-acre Presbyterian Camp for a high-end home development.

Saugatuck City planners Thursday got their first look at Barker’s and division proposal to create 12 single-family home lots on critical dunes overlooking Lake Michigan.

“I want to create 12 parcels of two-plus acres overlooking Lake Michigan under the Land Division Act. I’ll be selling the lots and the people who buy will be designing and building their own homes,” Barker told commissioners.

This is the very sad end to a story that could have turned out differently. In 2009, a group called Lakeshore Christian Camping was formed to purchase the land to “preserve the Presbyterian Camps in Saugatuck, MI and their Ministry for future generations.” They had a deal with the Presbytery of Chicago to purchase the property in 2010. However, the deal fell through when they could not raise the required funds – $12 million — and now a developer is going to change the dunes irreparably forever if the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approves his proposal. The land will now be sold to a developer for $10 million.

In another test of the new law, a developer plans a quarter mile long “driveway” through the White River Township Dunes, just north of Muskegon. The labeling of the road as a “driveway” is critical because the new law allows driveways to be built without consideration of their environmental impacts. In this case, however, the “driveway” is on public land owned by the township:

That key provision of the 2012 dune law change – the one most strongly supported by the pro-development lobby—essentially eliminated consideration of the potential negative environmental impacts of driveways in the dunes. It is at the heart of this controversial proposal.

The Bro G Land Company proposal includes an extensive access road—nearly a quarter of a mile long—through a township-owned dunes preserve along a supposed “easement.” A critical consideration of this permit and potentially other permits under consideration is the definition of “driveway” versus an easement. A review of the Bro G permit application and the revised law raises serious questions regarding the adequacy of the application and scope of the new law.

Below are MEC’s preliminary observations regarding the permit:

1) The application improperly treats a driveway and an easement access road as the same thing. This is not the case. The statute clearly states that a driveway runs only “from a road or easement” to the principal building. It also states that the driveway must be “privately owned.” MCLA 324.35311a(3) states:

(3) As used in this section, “driveway” means a privately owned, constructed, and maintained vehicular access from a road or easement serving the property to the principal building or accessory buildings, that is paved, graveled, or otherwise improved for vehicular access, 16 feet wide or narrower in the sole discretion of the applicant or owner, and may include, in the sole discretion of the applicant or owner, a shared driveway.

This reading of the statute is further reinforced by section (1)(a) which states the applicant should review other alternatives for a driveway which minimize impacts within “the lot of record.”

Why does it matter? Because the builders’ lobby made driveways essentially immune from DEQ oversight under the new law, permitting them “by right” if an engineer signs off on the proposal.

Those of you who are still focused on the Republican Party as a simply a conservative political group need to shed that perception. The Republican Party is actually nothing more than a group of corporatists working day and night to further the goals of the corporations they represent. This is not about conservative vs. liberal politics any longer. This is about changing our laws to benefit corporations and their profit margins. They throw some red meat to their conservative religious base occasionally, of course, by stomping on women and gays but, at the end of the day, the Republican Party, particularly here in Michigan, is in the nearly exclusive business of serving their corporate benefactors. When you look at their efforts and actions in this light, it gives you a fresh perspective and a greater understanding of their motivations, both keys to defeating them in 2014.

When we’re fighting battles to save our precious natural resources and protect the environment, our corporate opponents will keep coming back, battle after battle. If they lose a battle, they simply regroup and try again. We, on the other hand, don’t have that luxury. If we lose, even once, we’re done. The damage to the environment will be fait accompli.