Development plans could impact critical dunes

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PHOTOS BY DONNA SCHILLACI

by Donna Schillaci

Ever since the former Bluffton Elementary School was razed in 2013, there has been speculation about what would happen with the school’s prime piece of property near Lake Michigan and Muskegon Lake. Now the local development company that purchased the land has applied to use it as an access area for a large residential development just to the north.

But, the one-third-acre portion they want to use for an access road goes right through a Critical Dune Area (CDA), which means any new construction or physical change to the property requires a permit approved by the Michigan Depart-ment of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). And a local group committed to protecting Muskegon’s critical dunes is voicing its opposition to the project.

In 1989, Michigan’s Sand Dune Management and Protection Act was amended to allow for tighter state regulation of 74,000 acres of fragile and valuable dunes designated as CDAs, including those surrounding Muskegon’s former Pigeon Hill dune, which was mined for foundry sand in the mid-1900s. Sand Products owns the 76-acre Pigeon Hill property and purchased the Bluffton School property from Muskegon Public Schools in 2014, adding another seven acres.

Although no official plans have been submitted to the City of Muskegon, it is believed that Damfino Development, LLC, owned by Sand Products, plans some type of residential development on the land, which is currently zoned for single-family residences but could be changed to a planned unit development zone. According to the company’s MDEQ permit application, the only viable access to this property is through the critical dune that borders the former Bluffton School site.

Pigeon Hill Alliance (PHA), a non-profit organization dedicated to preservation, conservation, and education, focuses its efforts on the critical dunes in the city of Muskegon and is therefore very concerned with the potential impact of the access road construction. The group’s president, Larry Page, led a meeting last Tuesday to educate local residents from the Beachwood, Bluffton, and Lakeside neighborhoods and share PHA’s and his personal thoughts on the project.

Page passed out copies of the Damfino application -- including site maps, specifications for the road and an adjoining pedestrian path, methods of construction, and a complete narrative of the project and justification for it -- and discussed them in detail. While Damfino states that the road’s impact is lessened because it will go through a “natural saddle area,” Page says this is not natural, but a man-made deterioration in the dune caused by years of hiking traffic. “There’s been a tremendous amount of damage done to that dune,” he said. “It needs remediation, not a road.”

Page also expressed concern with the lack of an environmental impact study, and pointed out that the road and pedestrian path would not adhere to normal city standards and would be built on unstable fill sand. According to Damfino’s application to the MDEQ, the company would excavate 1,234 cubic yards of sand from the top of the dune and combine it with an additional 1,388 cubic yards to fill in around the road.

Much discussion among attendees at the PHA meeting focused on what other routes could be used to get to the Pigeon Hill property and whether they were better alternatives than the Bluffton property access. In its permit application, Damfino said that for various reasons, the other access points -- the surrounding small residential streets, the cul-de-sac at the end of Edgewater Street, and through the Harbour Towne development -- are not viable options.

Page encouraged area residents, no matter which side of the issue they stand on, to voice their opinion about the Damfino application and its impact on the local environment and economy. This can be done at a public hearing on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 6 p.m., at Muskegon City Hall’s commission chambers.

Public comments will also be accepted for 10 days following that hearing, by email at cuncannann@michigan.gov, or by regular mail at MDEQ, Water Resources Division, Grand Rapids District Office, Grand Rapids, MI 49503-2341. The submission number HN9-QB2N-ED8A3 should be referenced in all correspondence. A final decision on the permit will be made by the MDEQ following the public comment period.
 

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