Essay on Preserving the Crystal River–2005

From our 2005 Annual Report

Last week the Enterprise reported on the final transfer of the two parcels of land along the Crystal River from the Leelanau Conservancy to the National Park Service. The sale of this land represented the culmination of years of struggle and effort, and the final resolution of one of the most contentious land use disputes in Leelanau County history.

We Americans have a notoriously short attention span. Yesterday’s news quickly recedes, replaced by new concerns and the demands. The proposed golf course along the banks of the Crystal was the subject of articles in local, state, and even the national press. It commanded the attention of the highest ranking officials in the EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers. Endless wetland delineations and similar studies were completed to support one side or the other. At the end of the day, it’s difficult to even remember the sequence of more recent actions, and even more difficult to get some perspective on what really happened, and why. Given that the final chapter in this dispute has been written, it’s time to try to gather a little perspective. We’d like to offer a few observations.

In any complex land use dispute there is room for passionate disagreement. In fact it’s to be expected. The early years of the struggle for the Crystal River were characterized by the stridency of two opposing camps. Both sides worked to win in court, and in the court of public opinion as well. Tempers flared on more than one occasion, and there were times when each side felt that the other had stepped over the line. Glen Arbor became a tense, divided community.

It may be difficult for some people to even remember how bitter this dispute became. Perhaps this is because both sides eventually re-committed to working within the legal system, the regulatory framework, and began a search for common ground. Both the Friends of the Crystal River and the Homestead had excellent legal representation, and the proposed golf course worked its way through the system until finally the Army Corps ruled that, while a golf course could be accommodated on the property, certain areas of special sensitivity were to be off-limits to development.

One lesson: the system works best when people of passionate and opposing beliefs pull back from the brink, and maintain some respect for the position of the other side. In a small community civility can’t be sacrificed for immediate gain. A fair resolution depends on good faith and respect for the opposition. It is important to remember that the original Homestead property proposed for the golf course included nearly twice as much acreage as what ultimately was preserved in the 104 acre expansion of the Sleeping Bear Dunes. Much of the rest became the Woodstone Subdivision, with 97 home sites.

The Friends of the Crystal River never wavered from their ardent support for protecting the wetlands and the most scenic and publicly accessible stretches of the river, but the leadership of the organization was willing to work toward a resolution that was fair to the property owner. For its part, the leadership of the Homestead, while disappointed that the original vision for the golf course did not come to fruition, never denied the importance of the Crystal River and its adjacent wetlands to the community at large. In fact, when the time came to choose development of home sites on the rest of the property, or to give the Leelanau Conservancy another shot at brokering a deal for public ownership, they allowed the Conservancy to proceed.

Another lesson. Just as the “Friends” played a critical role, so too did the Leelanau Conservancy. Beginning in the mid-90s the Conservancy maintained lines of communication with both sides, and looked for solutions. There were false starts. Two proposed “swaps” of Crystal River land for land within the National Lakeshore were proposed by third parties, and fell by the wayside for lack of public support. In 1998, the Leelanau Conservancy and the Michigan Chapter of the Nature Conservancy, in cooperation of the Homestead, proposed the acquisition for transfer to the NPS of 167 acres. This plan fell through when financing could not be arranged.

But just six years later, events led to the Leelanau Conservancy’s brokering of a final purchase. By this time critical elements not present in 1998 were in place. First, the community at large was by now generally supportive of preserving the land for public use. Doubts about federal ownership and the Conservancy’s role, in providing bridge financing had disappeared. And local “angels” stepped up to provide initial funds. Second, leadership within the Midwest office of the National Park Service was fully committed to the acquisition. They made it the top priority within the region, an area stretching from the Rockies to the Appalachians. With the NPS fully on board, and local support for the acquisition virtually unanimous, Michigan’s congressional delegation stepped up to first amend the park boundaries, then procure funding.

Most importantly, the Leelanau Conservancy had grown in six years to have the financial strength to leverage the money needed to purchase the property. How does a relatively small non-profit borrow $4.85 million? Not easily. Lenders are accustomed to borrowers with balance sheets, capital assets, and a credit history. The Conservancy has an operating fund, an endowment, and 15 Natural Areas that we would never borrow against.

What the Conservancy can offer is the commitment of its large and growing membership of over 2,800 individuals and families. It can offer its proven track record in raising millions to complete conservation projects. We were able to convince lenders, primarily National City Bank and the Conservation Fund, that we had the financial strength to carry this off, even given the uncertainties of the federal funding process.

Finally, we think that the addition of this critical piece of “globally rare habitat” to the Sleeping Bear Dunes represents a new chapter in the relationship between Leelanau County’s citizens and the only national park in Michigan’s lower peninsula. Back in 1986, when the Crystal River controversy started, it would have been unthinkable to the majority of Leelanau’s residents that the best solution was the expansion of the Lakeshore’s boundaries, and acquisition by the government. Yes, the Crystal River lay adjacent to the park, and its special conservation value was generally accepted. But the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore had not been the brainchild of Leelanau citizens, and any courtship between the local folks and the park was at best an on-again off-again affair. Local organizations and politicians kept their distance, even while enjoying the priceless public access to miles of beaches and scenery, and the undeniably positive impact on the local economy. We have now come to see this Lakeshore as a gift to our community as well as the rest of Michigan and the U.S.

So this story, over the course of nearly 20 years, has many lessons. Ultimately it’s about balancing growth with conservation of priceless resources, and about coming to grips with how to accomplish great things in a small community.

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