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Great Lakes Article:

Duneland preservation gets $900,000 boost
Money for project from Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund
By Zac Anderson
Holland Sentinel

They were hoping for more -- a lot more -- but parties working to preserve a prime piece of duneland in Saugatuck say they're still happy with the $900,000 allocation awarded to the project Wednesday by the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund.

"Every bit helps," Saugatuck City Manager Gordon Gallagher said.

However, the allocation is just a small portion of the $10.7 million conservationists had hoped for as they compete with developers to purchase about 413 acres of duneland with a value estimated between $25 million and $40 million.

The property, which includes more than a mile of Lake Michigan shoreline, is owned by the Gertrude Denison Trust and the estate of Frank Denison, a Saugatuck Yacht builder who died in 2000. Beneficiaries of the estate and trust have expressed an interest in selling the land in the near future, sparking an effort to conserve the property by governmental agencies working with non-profit groups and private residents to raise the needed funds.

But the two sides have not been able to come up with a deal, something that might have worked against the application for natural resources trust fund dollars, Gallagher said.

"This emphasizes the need for us to come to an agreement with the sellers," he said.

Despite lacking a firm goal to shoot for, fund-raisers have amassed millions of dollars for the project over the last year.

The reduced allocation is the latest edition to a fund-raising effort that includes $5 million in private funds being raised by the Saugatuck resident group Save Our Shores and $3 million that was allocated last year by the natural resources trust. Another $2.5 million is expected to come from the federal government in the 2004 budget.

Although they are still far short of the money needed to purchase the property, organizers for the project said support remains strong.

"There is significant momentum in the fund-raising effort," said Julie Stoneman, executive director of the Land Conservancy of Western Michigan and one of the main organizers of the conservation effort.

Phil Miller, executive director of Save Our Shoreline, said he was happy to see any sort of commitment from the natural resources trust.

"They probably feel the same understandable frustration we do with wanting to see a contract for the sale of the property," he said.

Members of the trust's board of directors said during their annual meeting in Lansing Wednesday that they were wary of tying up large amounts of trust dollars over long periods of time. The trust had about $18 million for land acquisition grants this year and most of that money was split among several smaller projects.

In addition, some board members said they were turned off by the fact that part of the purchase would require the trust to make annual payments on top of the grant money.

The Denison property is divided in half by the Kalamazoo River. The city of Saugatuck is seeking to acquire the southern acreage which would connect to Oval Beach Park while the Michigan Department of Natural Resources would own the northern part of the property, which would be added to the Saugatuck Dunes State Park.

The DNR, and in this case, the natural resources trust, must make payments in lieu of taxes to local government agencies for land owned in a local tax district. The trust would have to pay about $300,000 annually for the Saugatuck property, board members said.

"I can't in good conscience vote for that," said trust board member Sam Washington.

State Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck Township, spoke at the meeting and addressed the payments in lieu of taxes issue, saying she was working to have the law changed.

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