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Swap Gambit: Homestead Proposal Hurts Public

Sleeping Bear saved from fat cat

August 1, 1996 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Just before Christmas last year, Robert A. Kuras, owner of The Homestead Resort in Leelanau County, and two board members of Friends of the Crystal River, an environmental group, surprised Northwest Michigan with an announcement. They had reached a compromise in their often fierce struggle over Mr. Kuras’s plan to fill in wetlands and develop a golf course along a free-flowing and wild reach of the Crystal River.

The tug of war between Mr. Kuras and the Friends group had lasted ten years, and had involved the Department of Natural Resources, the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal courts, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Governor’s Office, and the White House. Both contestants were searching for an end to the fight.

Under the proposal, Mr. Kuras would swap his 161 acres of marsh and woodland on the river to the National Park Service. He would receive 204 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, including ridge top meadow and forest overlooking Lake Michigan.

At first glance, the plan seemed forthright. The Friends of the Crystal River were relieved that the land they had fought for would be forever protected. Mr. Kuras would at long last be able to build an 18-hole championship golf course and more private homes.

Mr. Kuras asserted that the exchange would ensure The Homestead’s economic future by enabling him to build a second golf course adjoining his resort. Almost immediately, the plan was endorsed by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, several Leelanau County townships, the Record Eagle, the Detroit News, and the Detroit Free Press.

But soon the initial euphoria faded, and the implications and precedents of such a swap were revealed. The Friends of the Crystal River rescinded their endorsement in June, as did three townships. U.S. Senator Spencer Abraham has withdrawn the legislation he had prepared for Congressional approval of the deal. Support for the proposal has evaporated.

The reason: the National Park Service and several leading federal officials have criticized the swap as being solely for one man’s benefit. Stewart L. Udall, Secretary of the Interior during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, said that if Congress approved the swap, it would allow for the whittling away of valuable lands from the national parks, and would undermine the credibility of the entire national park system.

Why? Because in establishing the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and every other national park, the U.S. Government deployed its Constitutional power of condemnation, permanently securing land in the "public interest" for "public uses." Opposition to the condemnations was so strong in Northwest Michigan during the 1960s and 1970s that the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore was among the most difficult parks to establish, said Mr. Udall.

Building an exclusive championship golf course and luxury homes on previously condemned land within the National Lakeshore would be incompatible with the public use doctrine, according to the park service. In addition, the precedent set by the swap would make it harder to establish new parks and enlarge existing ones, since property owners could argue that the federal government may not be taking their land for a public purpose.

"This is an attempt to set a bad policy that is not in the national interest," said Mr. Udall, from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. "This is a sellout to a fat cat."

The implications of the swap locally also are serious. Many people are wondering whether growth and development in Northwest Michigan has become so undisciplined that even the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is targeted. Such lack of care represents perhaps the gravest threat not only to the region’s environment, but also to its economy.

Had there been no foresight a generation ago, much of the coastal bluffs and interior high lands that now are protected in the park would have been developed with new roads, private homes, condominiums and businesses. Because that did not happen, the 71,000-acre Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is the largest stretch of unindustrialized wild land in the Lower Peninsula. And just as Stewart Udall and its other founders predicted, the park also has become the cornerstone of the region’s tourism and recreation industry, attracting more visitors annually (1 million) than Mackinac Island.

By nearly all accounts, the swap was a bad idea. Still, what does the future hold for the Crystal River?

Will Mr. Kuras seek permits to fill wetlands on his Crystal River property, and continue to challenge the federal Clean Water Act? That approach surely would prolong the struggle, since jurisdiction is no longer with the EPA, and Mr. Kuras would have to begin the application process anew with the Army Corps of Engineers.

The Friends of the Crystal River are encouraging Mr. Kuras to build elsewhere — they have identified eight available parcels of dry land close to The Homestead. Another view holds that Mr. Kuras need not expand to remain "competitive", but could promote his location within an astonishingly beautiful national park — it is an amenity that no other resort could ever match.

(A version of this article was published in Traverse Magazine in August, 1996)

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