Tuesday, July 14, 2009

As federal case continues, developers rush to finish elite golf course on public dunes
Plaintiffs say environmental laws, public trust have been broken; Granholm: '[I]t is exactly the sort of comprehensive approach to revitalization that we have set in motion across Michigan.'
By Eartha Jane Melzer 6/16/09 [emphasis added]

BENTON HARBOR — Developers of a private Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course under construction on public parkland are trying to grow turf atop Jean Klock Park’s Lake Michigan sand dunes and open a portion of the course for business before a decision is reached in the federal case that seeks to stop the project.

Earlier this month, local opponents of the park privatization filed a brief in a Grand Rapids federal court where they argued that developers had evaded federal law by chopping the 530-acre development into smaller pieces in an effort to avoid environmental review of the project. They also argued that Benton Harbor residents and officials were swindled by the deal that involved a swap of 22 acres of dunes for a series of inland parcels that are contaminated with industrial chemicals. The plaintiffs say federal officials approved the deal without knowing the extent of the pollution on these parcels because state officials and developers did not disclose their assessments of the health risks associated with contact with the soil and water on these parcels.

“The only parts of the Paw Paw riverside lands swapped for Jean Klock park that will be safe to walk on are the paths themselves. That is what Harbor Shores own experts have told them,” Plaintiffs attorney Terry Lodge said in a statement, “But don’t take my word for it. Go to the Protect Jean Klock Park website and look for yourselves.”

A hearing on the merits of the case is scheduled for August.

In the meantime, the developer, Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment Inc., a non-profit strongly tied to the locally headquartered Whirlpool Corp., has cleared trees from the park, removed a wooden walkway, cut an opening in the sand dunes and built a parking lot on the beach near the water.

Harbor Shores spokeswoman Wendy Dant Chesser said that the organization has hired personnel, including a director of golf, an assistant golf professional director of youth development and aims to open half of the golf course for limited play at some point in July. Prices for play at the elite new course have not yet been established, she said.

Benton Harbor resident and plaintiff Nicole Moon said the Jean Klock Park lakefront was one of the reasons she chose to move to the Southwest Michigan city.

“It was beautiful, untouched, undeveloped. There was so much wildlife and the sounds of the winds through the trees. Now when you go there it is amazing how quiet it is,” she said. “You can’t hear the birds anymore, can’t hear the wind in the cottonwood.”

If the court allows private development in Jean Klock Park, which was deeded to residents of the Benton Harbor in 1917, all public land will be at risk, Moon said.

“This is going to set a precedent for every other park. It’s like saying about the Grand Canyon — nobody is using this let’s fill it up and build something on it.”

The Harbor Shores development has received millions in tax breaks from the state of Michigan.

“This project is going to jump-start Benton Harbor’s economy and give a boost to the entire region,” Gov. Jennifer Granholm said after visiting last May. “And it is exactly the sort of comprehensive approach to revitalization that we have set in motion across Michigan.”

The development, slated to extend for hundreds of acres around the lakefront park, is to include shops, a hotel and 810 units of luxury housing which is being marketed as vacation homes for people in Chicago.

But for all the talk of uplift and community development the project is facing economic challenges, the developers acknowledge.

“The economy is interfering more than the lawsuit,” Chesser said.

Chesser said that 128 people have expressed interest in the planned residential development but no purchase agreements exist.

Some area residents are bitter about what they see as the real goal of the development project that has made a portion of the city’s biggest park off limits to residents in Benton Harbor, one of the state’s poorest cities.

“Speaking from a poor man’s point of view, it’s all about money,” said one local hotel worker who did not want to give his name. “They want to get all the black people out of Benton Harbor.”