Billionaire Wants to Develop Dunes

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The billionaire co-owner of the NBA's Seattle SuperSonics has come up with a new game plan for his planned development of 412 acres of nearly untouched Lake Michigan dune property that he owns.
At the request of a lawyer representing Aubrey McClendon, the Saugatuck Township Board of Trustees on Wednesday agreed to indefinitely table a zoning deal proposed by Saugatuck LLC, a development company set up by McClendon.
McClendon, a co-founder of a natural gas company and one of several Oklahoma businessmen who bought the Sonics in 2006, wants to build multimillion-dollar homes on the Allegan County dunes that environmentalists have fought for years to preserve.
Under the agreement, Saugatuck LLC would have agreed not to go forward with two legal actions against the township in return for rezoning the property to allow more housing.
McClendon had threatened a tax tribunal case, saying the tax assessment on the property, for which he paid $39.5 million in 2006, was too high. He also threatened a lawsuit alleging that he was not given proper notice of a zoning change that reduced the number of homes that could be built on the land, lowering its value.
The current zoning requires a minimum lot size of five acres per unit, which would limit the number of homes that could be built at about 80. The proposed agreement would have, for one year, re-established the original zoning and allowed 250 to 265 homes on the property.
The board tabled the agreement at its Dec. 19 meeting after about 30 visitors spoke out against it. Some trustees said they needed more time to review the terms.
At Wednesday's meeting, it was Grand Rapids lawyer James Bruinsma asking on behalf of McClendon that the settlement be tabled. He said there would be no threat of a tax tribunal case or lawsuit for the next year.
"We are working hard to be thoughtful and responsible new stewards of this special land," Bruinsma said. "We respect the history and beauty of this unique property and the community of Saugatuck. We are confident that once we share our plan with the community -- something we expect to do this spring -- the majority of you will recognize and appreciate our commitment."
After hearing more public comment, the board granted the request and indefinitely tabled the settlement.
Stephen Neumer, another lawyer for McClendon, told the trustees at last month's meeting that his client planned to build fewer than 80 homes on the approximately 250 acres north of the river and offered to lease the southern 160 or so acres at no cost to the city of Saugatuck.
The property site, located in southwestern Michigan, straddles the mouth of the Kalamazoo River where it empties into Lake Michigan, linking Saugatuck Dunes State Park to the north with the city of Saugatuck's Oval Beach to the south.
Environmentalists consider McClendon's property to be among the most beautiful dunes on the lake. They say the land is part of the only undeveloped navigable river mouth on the lake.
A local family owned the property, which includes a large lakefront home, for decades. A conservation group had lined up $37.5 million in grants and donations to purchase the land, but McClendon outbid the group by $2 million.

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