Environment Picture

A line in the sand

Petoskey Prize winner fights uphill battle to protect public dunes from development
Environmental justice is no abstraction to the Michigan Environmental Council’s 2008 honorees, both of whom have fought uphill battles to bring the cause to the forefront of public debate.

For University of Michigan Professor Bunyan Bryant, recipient of the Helen & William Milliken Distinguished Service Award, that debate is a national one: His life’s work has been integral in moving environmental justice from a fringe issue to a widely accepted tenet of progressive public policy.

For Carol Drake, the uphill struggle evolved from a local spat to a nationally profiled fight to protect a Benton Harbor park from being sliced up for a private developer’s golf course. It pits Drake and a growing legion of outraged citizens against a powerful array of political, financial and corporate interests.

It wasn’t a fight Drake was looking for.
But in 2002, she began noticing men with suits and ties struggling up the sand dunes and along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Jean Klock Park. The visitors were out of place in the park, donated in 1917 for perpetual public ownership and use by John Klock and his wife, Carrie. The donation was in memory of their daughter, Jean, who died in infancy.
“Perhaps some of you do not own a foot of ground, remember then, that this is your park,” John Klock said during the donation ceremony. “It belongs to you. Perhaps some of you have no piano or phonograph, the roll of the water murmuring in calm, roaring in storm, is your music, your piano and music box.”

The park was Drake’s childhood hangout. “I’d ride my bike three miles to the park. We ran around the trails and rolled down the blowouts and swam. It was fantasyland.”
So when the suits arrived, Drake started asking questions. The answers made her suspicious. The truth made her furious.

Massive redevelopment planned
The Harbor Shores Community Redevelopment, Inc., backed principally by Benton Harbor–based Whirlpool Corp., was planning a massive 530-acre mixed-use redevelopment project that included sorely needed new housing, hotels, an indoor water park, marinas and a conference center.

The initial news was a breath of fresh air for Benton Harbor, a city of 11,000 which is among the most economically depressed in the state with a 16% unemployment rate and block after block of blighted and abandoned homes and businesses.

Harbor Shores says the project will encompass three municipalities, pumping millions into the economies of neighboring St. Joseph and Benton Township, and nearly doubling Benton Harbor’s beleaguered tax base.
But little-noticed in the initial rush of euphoria was this troubling prospect: Harbor Shores said the whole $500-million deal was contingent on the developers taking 22 acres of prime sand dunes in Jean Klock Park for three holes of a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course.

In exchange, Harbor Shores proposed giving the community more than 40 acres of unconnected, isolated parcels of land that they would connect with boardwalks and pathways.
Drake and her allies dug into the proposal and discovered that many of the proposed “exchange” parcels were contaminated with industrial waste. Most were inaccessible wetlands and others were already owned by the city.
And while the developer’s PR minions spoke glowingly of upgrades and improvements to the Jean Klock Park beach, the documents and maps made clear that the park would be fractured by the redevelopment, essentially sealing off the dunes from the public for the exclusive use of golfers.
The project quickly gained the backing of many local officials, politicians and even Gov. Jennifer Granholm.
Drake’s lonely attempts to raise the alarm about the destruction of the park met with indifference. No one, it seemed, cared or even wanted to listen.

Unlikely maverick
There’s little in Drake’s background to suggest her ascension to citizen activist.
The mother of two adult sons, she spent her whole life in Benton Harbor, working cleaning houses and as a sales representative, and more recently managing an online poetry forum.

But when her park was threatened, she took it personally.
In 2003, Drake was among six plaintiffs who sued to stop new lakeshore houses from encroaching on part of the Jean Klock Park property.

An eventual settlement in the 2003 case sacrificed 3.5 acres of park land for an agreement that the rest of the park would have ironclad protection against future development plans. Citizens hoped it would be the end of a series of small encroachments on park land that had whittled it from 90 to 73 acres over several decades.

But even as that deal was being negotiated, Harbor Shores was drawing up golf course plans that included taking the park’s best views, atop its dunes. It was a violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the settlement in 2003, and a slap in the face of residents who were kept in the dark about the golf course plans.

The initial indifference of her friends and neighbors stiffened her resolve to bring the truth to public discussion.
“I hit the streets every day for seven months passing out fliers and talking to people,” she said. “It’s been especially gratifying to see the residents get a voice in this. If anyone deserves a victory, they do.”

Slowly, Drake’s efforts brought the park’s plight to the public.
The controversy has elevated the debate from a local issue to one of statewide significance, raising questions including:
  • If a park deeded forever for public use can be taken for private use in the Jean Klock Park case, what assurances are there that thousands of other publicly deeded lands and private conservation easements in Michigan aren’t similarly at risk?
  • Is it fair or just that prime public park land is being taken from a poor, 94% black community for a private golf course that few residents can afford to use? And does the loss of recreational opportunities in a poor community violate federal environmental justice rules or Gov. Granholm’s environmental justice executive directive?
  • Can a patchwork of partially contaminated wetlands and scrub woods adequately compensate residents for the loss of prime sand dunes with world-class views of Lake Michigan?
  • Are there environmental concerns with pesticides, herbicides and dune destabilization that need to be addressed with a golf course so close to the lake?
Despite the growing awareness, the plans marched inexorably forward.
Drake spent much of her 2005 divorce settlement, and almost all of her free time, fighting to save the park and hoping for a miracle to derail the developer’s juggernaut.

Finally, a win
By late 2007, almost all the appropriate public councils, agencies and boards had signed off on the taking of Jean Klock Park. (MEC’s Lana Pollack, a member of the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Board, was the lone “no” vote on that board.) The developer’s colorful stakes were already firmly planted in the public’s dunes, marking the locations of tees and holes.

Then, a bolt from the heavens.
In October 2007, the National Park Service denied the land swap, stopping the park conversion in its tracks. In a strongly worded letter, the Park Service validated many of the arguments Drake and her allies had been making all along. Among its findings: 
  • The proposal “in effect transfers perpetual control and tenure of the entire Jean Klock Park and the proposed replacement lands from Benton Harbor to (Harbor Shores).”
  • The proposed replacement lands are “insufficient in magnitude, capacity and viability to mitigate the subject 22.11 acre or any larger conversion.”
Harbor Shores has made revisions to its plan—though little substantive change to the proposed land swap—and is seeking reconsideration of the Park Service denial. It continues to insist that the 22 acres of sand dunes is the linchpin on which the entire $500 million project pivots.
Carol Drake remains unconvinced.

Whether she ultimately prevails or not, she’s succeeded in raising awareness of key environmental, social justice and fairness issues as well as calling the bluff of a powerful coalition of development interests who assumed they could steamroll a compliant and unquestioning public.
-Hugh McDiarmid, Jr., Michigan Environmental Council
RELATED TOPICS: environmental justice, land use
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