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Friends of the Crystal River Persist for 14 Years, and Win

August 12, 2000 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Countless rivers in Michigan have been soiled, diminished, and ruined by pollution and over-development. But not the Crystal River, which slips out of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore and wraps its breathtakingly clear and inviting arms around Glen Arbor.
The Crystal is an exception in part because residents of this hamlet on the western edge of Leelanau County spent 14 years fighting off an ill-considered plan by both the Department of Natural Resources and the Homestead Resort to fill wetlands, cut down cedar forests, and turn the river into a water hazard and turf chemical drain for an 18-hole golf course.
Last July, their work reached a satisfying conclusion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the Homestead’s application to fill and clear nearly 14 acres of wetlands. The Corps said it would cause significant environmental damage and was “contrary to the overall public interest.”
“We’re doing what we’re doing because we can still see the bottom of the river,” said Friends of the Crystal River president Barbara Weber. “This isn’t a place for a golf course. The river is a public trust and it should not be abused.”

Relentless Pressure
This saga began in 1986 when Robert A. Kuras, the Homestead’s owner, quietly purchased options to 267 acres along the river, enough to build a championship course, condos, shops, pools, and a clubhouse. Ms. Weber and several of her neighbors formed the Friends, and joined traditional grassroots organizing and communications with remarkably effective fundraising for an intensive legal defense.
The Friends’ message was that turf fertilizers and pesticides would irreparably harm the river’s water quality; that the 1979 state wetland law clearly prohibited the golf course; and that such a large and damaging development would violate the state Environmental Protection Act.
What neither the Friends nor Mr. Kuras anticipated was how much attention this local battle would attract nationally. The case emerged at a critical moment in a far-reaching debate about the value and usefulness of environmental regulations, and whether wetlands merit strong protections.
Politics had not yet entered the picture when the DNR in 1987 denied a permit to destroy the wetlands. But Mr. Kuras used his close ties to leaders in both political parties to undermine the ruling, and in 1990 the DNR reversed itself and issued a permit.
The Chicago office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency immediately objected to the DNR’s permit. The authority to review Mr. Kuras’s application was then transferred to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the federal wetland protection law.
Mr. Kuras appealed directly to Gov. John Engler, who came to power in part on his promise to roll back environmental regulations. The Governor was among a number of Michigan politicians who took Mr. Kuras’ complaint directly to the Bush White House, which issued an order to reverse the EPA’s objection.

Favorable Rulings
Nearly every twist in this case met with a legal reply as Friends of the Crystal River, and their Traverse City attorneys Olson, Noonan & Bzdok, pursued lawsuits in state and federal court. To date, the Friends have spent $400,000 and won important legal decisions.
Perhaps the two most important were a 1992 federal District Court ruling that upheld the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers to review the Homestead’s wetland permit. And last May, Leelanau County Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers, Jr., ruled that the state Department of Environmental Quality, which now oversees the wetland law, violated the Freedom of Information Act by denying the Friends access to crucial public documents.

CONTACTS: Jim Olson, 231-946-0044; Chris Anderlik, Friends of the Crystal River, 231-922-5115, e-mail: anderlik@traverse.com.

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