The massive Harbor Shores redevelopment project proposed in Benton Harbor would inject new economic vitality into a community that sorely needs it.
But the cost - the snatching of beautiful publicly-owned Lake Michigan sand dunes that were legally deeded for eternal use as a public park a century ago - is more than the citizens of Michigan should be willing to bear. Once this legal agreement is torn asunder, no Michigan conservation easement, land trust or preservation agreement is safe from developers with clever legal strategies and powerful political connections.
The controversy over the dunes at Jean Klock Park has split a community. Opponents rightly contend it is an environmental justice issue. The most scenic portions of a public park, utilized almost exclusively by minority residents of one of the state's poorest communities, would be appropriated by Harbor Shores to build a fancy golf course that few Benton Harbor citizens could ever afford to play.
The "compensation" land that the developer proposes in trade includes several unconnected patches of swampy brushland, and some access points to the St. Joseph River. Some of these parcels are contaminated with toxic chemicals, and others are already owned by the city.
Until recently, Harbor Shores was viewed largely as a local or regional dispute.