Environmental hurdles face a developer who landed a controversial deal to buy and convert a more than century old campsite property, owned by a Chicago church group, along the Lake Michigan shoreline into a stretch of multimillion-dollar homes.
The Presbytery of Chicago voted Saturday to sell the 130-acre property in Saugatuck, Mich., to developer David Barker for $10 million to pay off a debt it acquired, reportedly to settle a sex abuse lawsuit involving one of its former ministers.
The sale of the environmentally and erosion-sensitive dunes property, expected to close Friday, is opposed by camp supporters and environmentalists.
To proceed with the development, Barker needs approval from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality because “this is in a critical dune area,” said Keith Walker, president of the Oval Beach Preservation Society and a Saugatuck resident. “We will be opposing those DEQ approvals.”
David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance and also a Saugatuck resident, said he also plans to oppose the project, which he noted would be in high-risk erosion areas.
“If the Department of Environmental Quality hears from two neighbors who live within two miles of the proposal, they will have a public hearing, and I believe they will probably hear from maybe 100 people,” Swan said.
Walker’s group, a nonprofit, had offered to pay $8 million to purchase the 130 acres from the Presbytery, a religious institution that includes roughly 100 Presbyterian churches in the Chicago metropolitan area. The society had agreed to sell 30 of the acres to nonprofit Lakeshore Camping for $2 million, allowing it to continue to operate the camp. The society had planned to subject the remainder of the property to a conservation easement that would prevent it from ever being developed, Walker said.
But the Presbytery did not consider the proposal because it did not have assurance the nonprofits had the financial support to close the deal enabling the Presbytery to pay off its debt by Feb. 28, Rev. Robert Reynolds, executive presbyter, said last week.
The Presbytery needs to sell the property to pay a $7.4 million debt, according to Reynolds. He declined to comment on whether the debt was tied to a settlement of a sexual-abuse lawsuit filed in 2002 that accused a Presbyterian minister, Douglas Mason, of sexually abusing boys at a Ukrainian Village youth ministry for at least nine years during the 1990s.
According to The Layman, an online publication of a Presbyterian advocacy group, the Presbytery took out an $11 million loan after settling the sex-abuse claims in 2007.
Barker received approval from the Saugatuck Planning Commission in December to build eight homes on part of the property. His plans call for ultimately building a total of 12 homes on part of the property, with plans for the remainder of the property not yet determined.
Barker said he has not yet filed for approval with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, but he hopes to do so by the end of this month.
“We have been in constant contact with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality,” he said. “We’re continuing our process with our engineers and environmental consultants. . . . We would never submit anything that we don’t feel would have a legal right to be approved.”
He added he’s “fairly certain that whatever we submit we won’t have any problem with,” contending his plan calls for far less intense use than how the property is currently being used.
The environmental requirements “to create these 12 homes are enormous,” Barker said.
“I understand the camp can accommodate about 400 people,” he said. “When you have all that traffic all summer long, it’s certainly much more impactful on the environment than 12 homes that are highly restricted with limitations on tree removals and no disturb areas.”
But Swan said the development, which includes boat slips, would be immediately south of Saugatuck’s Oval beach, one of the best beaches in the world, and the homes would be visible from the beach. He labeled the Barker plan “inappropriate development” that would alter “the integrity, the wholeness of the Saugatuck Dunes cultural landscape.”