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The Economy is the Geography

Diminishing the land is a regional hazard

March 9, 2007 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Mike Shaw
  To escape to the calm and quiet of our undeveloped coast is a rare and increasingly endangered experience.

SAUGATUCK -- Like many communities across America, the Saugatuck coastal areas are indeed under siege. Companies with deep pockets and developers intent on major projects too often ignore established planning documents such as the Tri-Community Comprehensive Plan or the Laketown Township Permit Standards. They dispute zoning, and threaten litigation.Arriving with the promise of jobs and an increased tax base, they don’t acknowledge the hidden costs of utilities, roads and bridges, and additional fire and police protection — all of which end up costing local taxpayers money.

Our communities are addressing a great many land use issues, perhaps none more significant than proposed development of the former Denison. No one disputes the former Denison is a haven of solitude unparalleled in natural beauty and diversity. We all agree that the former Denison is a treasure that makes our coast unique. The landscape, the flora, the fauna, and especially the darkened gateway the undeveloped river provides to Saugatuck harbor.

In large part, our economy is based upon visitors coming to witness such singular splendor. And for 30 years a great number of people have been working to move the former Denison into the public trust for the enjoyment of all people.

As Keith Schneider of the Michigan Land Use Institute reminds us: "Our geography is our economy and our economy is our geography." This is especially true with our Saugatuck Dunes coastal areas which are defined by the lower Kalamazoo River watershed, the significant natural features of the Saugatuck Dunes eco-system, and Lake Michigan.

Jobs and a Magnificent Landscape
These areas are the economic engine for tourism, recreation, sustainable agriculture, strong residential real estate values and offer us an exceptionally high quality of life. We must conserve these areas with an eye toward economic sustainability. And in the coming months local groups will be coming together to find an alternative to the one offered us by developers; we must safeguard our place for a sustainable future.

I welcome anyone to walk with me, especially at night, through this threatened landscape. To escape to the calm and quiet of our undeveloped coast is a rare and increasingly endangered experience.

I propose a night hike close to the full moon. I will take you up the stairs at Mount Baldhead to see the twinkling lights of Saugatuck and Douglas reflected on Kalamazoo Lake. Turning west towards the big lake the lack of lights and the sound of wind through pines a welcome counter point as we drop onto the northerly ridge of forested back dunes.

Looking northwest you see how like snow the sand is in its reflection of moonlight. It is unlike any light I’ve encountered. You experience the openness more completely in the dark, the lack of human oversight, as shadow defines landscape – nuance that daylight dissolves. And at night you experience what is truly at risk – the vast open space and darkness, like so much calm and solace just rolling forth endlessly: a gift.

David Swan, a writer and Saugatuck home owner, is working with other community leaders to form the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance to protect and preserve the region’s coastal areas.

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