From the Daily: Risk without reward


Published January 8, 2014

Frequent patrons of Michigan’s sand dunes may soon find them littered with cul-de-sacs and vacation houses. On Monday, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality released a public letter indicating its intention to permit the construction of a cluster of houses on the Saugatuck Dunes. Located in Saugatuck, Michigan, the state park is a fragile ecosystem that plays a significant role in Michigan’s tourist industry. The DEQ needs to reconsider its position and halt the construction project. Preserving the Saugatuck Dunes is in the best interest of the state and risking environmental integrity for a few houses is an unnecessary gamble.

The proposal to build 18 houses and a road comes from realty company Singapore Dunes. Stephen Neumer, the managing director of Singapore Dunes, said a permit from the DEQ “is key to making the land usable and developable.” Despite the limited initial plans, Neumer has admitted that the company aims to eventually construct condominium buildings, a resort and marina. Earlier plans even called for a golf course. Critics have warned against the potential economic repercussions of disrupting the dunes. In a statement, the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance argued that the construction project will cause “devastating and irreversible damage” to the “globally rare and fragile dune system.”

Coastal dunes are a vital part of the state’s environment. Primarily, they act as a natural barrier to high winds and destructive waves that could otherwise reach areas further inland. Dunes are able to maintain their size by moving inland in response to water level changes; however, buildings constructed close to dunes prevent this reaction and slowly reduce the barriers’ width. Furthermore, the dunes are host to a wide array of wildlife, which in turn help keep their sand and structure in place. Plants such as lichens, mosses, grasses and wildflowers have adapted over time to the extreme weather dunes are subjected to. High foot and vehicular traffic on dunes destroys these life forms, decreasing the stability of the dunes’ structure and increasing the risk of flood.

Dunes also attract tourists — a huge part of Michigan's economy. In 2010, the state earned $964.2 million in tourism-related revenue and 152,600 thousand jobs were created by the tourism industry. Saugatuck itself, where the dunes are located, depends on tourism. With the degradation of the Saugatuck Dunes, not only will the city’s economy suffer, but the state will lose revenue from taxes as well.

Rather than protecting Michigan’s ecological gem, the DEQ’s standards are actually the basis for allowing the encroachment of the dunes. After reviewing its internal requirements, the DEQ is planning to grant a permit for constructing two cul-de-sacs and 18 houses. DEQ director Dan Wyant has said that its own Sand Dunes Protection and Management statute allows for the construction plans proposed by Singapore Dunes. “We are compelled to issue the permit,” said Wyant. As it stands, the DEQ’s regulation of the dunes is too relaxed and needs to be amended. With such few protections in place already, the DEQ must take seriously its responsibility to protect Michigan’s sand dunes.