Fight Over Michigan Dunes Continues In Court

The ongoing battle over some pristine lakefront dunes in Michigan plays out in a courtroom Thursday when a township clerk faces charges of violating election law. That's the latest in a zoning fight over a planned luxury development between billionaire Oklahoma oil tycoon Aubrey McClendon and officials in Michigan's Saugatuck Township — a resort area known for its small-town feel.

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The latest twist in a battle over undeveloped lakefront property in western Michigan will play out in the courtroom tomorrow. That's when a Saugatuck Township clerk and her deputy face charges of violating election law. The legal action is another chapter in a contentious fight between Township officials and Oklahoma billionaire Aubrey McClendon, over a proposed luxury development.

NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY: The serene rolling forest and sand dunes near Saugatuck, Michigan stretch for miles, gradually rising off the ground. The forests are full of birds and other wildlife, and Lake Michigan and the Kalamazoo River run alongside pristine beaches.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation calls this part of Michigan one of the country's most distinctive designations and one of its most endangered.

Mr. DAVID SWAN (President, Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance): We're walking towards one of the last undeveloped river mouths on Lake Michigan.

CORLEY: David Swan heads the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, which works to preserve open space here - sandy dunes, wetlands and forest. Standing on top of a sand dune, Swan points across a lagoon to about 300 acres of land.

Mr. SWAN: Aubrey McClendon now owns land that is almost completely surrounded by publicly-funded natural areas.

CORLEY: This is the land that's been in the center of a dispute here for years. It's where McClendon, the billionaire CEO of Chesapeake Energy and the co-owner of the NBA Oklahoma City Thunder, wants to build a development including a hotel and luxury homes. That has environmentalists here up in arms and this community divided.

But first, the dispute. Aubrey McClendon bought this land in Saugatuck Township five years ago. But before he was able to close the deal, the Township board changed the zoning. Township officials and David Swan insist it was part of a regional plan that had been in the works for years.

Mr. R.J. PETERSON (President, Saugatuck-Douglas Chamber of Commerce): This is the gate house. This is the equestrian center. I mean really nice-looking.

CORLEY: R.J. Peterson heads the Chamber of Commerce here and is pouring over a scale model of McClendon's proposed development in his office. He says the planners did a good job of preserving open space.

Mr. PETERSON: Eighty-five percent of the property is unused. It's not developed. Not only that, they've tried to design this to maximize the -you might say the park area and minimize the development.

CORLEY: McClendon development team wouldn't go on tape for this story but their lawyers have been busy filing numerous lawsuits, primarily challenging the township's new zoning. They say their development, which would also include a marina and horse stables, would be good for the community - bringing jobs, new tax revenue and even sustainable methods to shore-up eroding sand dunes.

David Swan and others see it differently. They say what drives this economy is the natural beauty of the place.

Mr. SWAN: If we allow inappropriate development, the goose that laid the golden egg will be dead.

Unidentified Man #1: Thank you for coming this evening. I'd like to bring this meeting to order, please.

CORLEY: When the Saugatuck township board held its regular meeting earlier this month, a court order prevented board members from talking about the fight with Aubrey McClendon. But residents at the meeting had no such restrictions.

Mr. JAMES COOK: I'd like to start by saying thank you to this board.

CORLEY: Inside the board room, Township resident and photographer James Cook thanked the board for continuing to fight McClendon. Outside the meeting, he said McClendon needs to craft a plan following local zoning laws.

Mr. COOK: But he's trying to change the rules, and he's rich enough. He personally has more income every year than this community has. So he can paperwork-us-through-court to death, bankrupt the community and get his way.

CORLEY: But Andrew Leach, a 28-year-old mechanic here, believes Saugatuck is, as he puts it, throwing money down a rat hole in fighting this development.

Mr. ANDREW LEACH (Mechanic): And I said so in the meetings four - three and four years ago. I stood up and said: If you back a tiger into the corner, and poke him the face, you're going to get bit. We have got bit, plain and simple.

CORLEY: The latest example of that metaphorical bite takes place tomorrow, when the clerks for Saugatuck Township are arraigned on misdemeanor charges over an election allowing Saugatuck to raise taxes to pay lawyers to fight Aubrey McClendon's lawsuits. It's a nasty fight that so far shows no signs of ending.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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