07 December 2009

Dune Preservation Efforts In Saugatuck Get $2Million Less Than Expected


SAUGATUCK TOWNSHIP -- Backers of a plan to buy 171 acres of Lake Michigan dunes property for public use say they'll scramble in the next few weeks to find a solution for a $2.1 million shortage to close the $20 million deal.

The shortfall surfaced after the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund board agreed Wednesday to award a $10.5 million grant over three years to buy the former south Denison property.

The amount, however, is less than the $12.6 million backers sought for what the state is calling the Saugatuck Harbor Natural Area.

"We have to go back to our partners and with the seller and determine if there is a way to reach closing before year end," said Peter Homeyer, executive director of the Grand Rapids-based Land Conservancy of West Michigan. "

"This does add an extra piece of work. But frankly, putting together projects like this have a lot of moving parts."

The Land Conservancy, in cooperation with the Nature Conservancy and Saugatuck, in September reached the purchase agreement with land owner Aubrey McClendon to buy the southern half of 412 acres at the mouth of the Kalamazoo River formerly known as the Denison property.

The purchase agreement with McClendon, CEO of Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Co., was contingent upon the trust fund board's approval of the $12.6 million.

Homeyer hopes McClendon will be willing to amend the agreement, whether it involves altering the price or finding money from other sources to reach the $20 million.

"It's worth the work on everyone's part to try to permanently protect one of the highest-priority parcels in West Michigan," he said.

The trust fund board funded $24.9 million in property acquistitions to multiple projects across the state Wednesday, but many projects did not receive full funding.

Board members said they gave as much money as feasible given the downturn in investment funds the trust fund relies on.

Last year, $49.5 million in funds were available for acquisition and development awards. This year, $35.7 million was available.

"This was a very large commitment we don't usually make," said trust fund board member Dennis Muchmore.

"It's a great project."

Project backers are hoping to secure more funding from the national Fisheries Trust or other benefactors.

State Sen. Patty Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, hopes the trust fund board may be able to increase its allocation to the project during the second and third years of the funding.

"We've never had a check in front of us before, so this is good," she said of the state funding. "We have to go back and see what we can do to get this to closing."

Besides the state funding, James W. Brooks and his Holland family, The Frey Foundation, Fred and Lena Meijer and J.A. Woollam Foundation have promised $6 million to the project.

Representatives of McClendon did not return telephone calls seeking comment Wednesday.

McClendon bought the Denison property from the Saugatuck family in 2006 for $39.5 million.

Singapore Dunes LLC, which McClendon owns, is requesting zoning regulation changes from Saugatuck Township to allow more homes and kitchen remodeling in Saugatuck per acre, multifamily homes, lodging, a marina and commercial buildings on 318 acres of undeveloped land on the river zoned residential. McClendon owns other land beside the Denison property in the locale.

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