The Homestead Golf Course Saga
A decisive factor in the defeat of the National Park Service's attempt to "save" the Platte River was the power of the national property rights movement. That same political force manifested itself in one of the most long lasting land use disputes in northwest Michigan, the Homestead golf course proposal. The case, which severely fractured the communities of Leelanau County, pitted the desire to develop a modern tourist infrastructure against the need to preserve the environmental amenities that made the Leland Peninsula attractive to tourists in the first place. Like the Riverside Canoe embroilment the Homestead case was a battle about controlling successful, high-quality private businesses from growing in such a way as to do permanent harm to a beautiful and popular public resource.
In retrospect one of the major mistakes made when drawing the boundaries of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore during the 1960s had been the decision to omit the lands around the Leelanau School from the national lakeshore. The private school was seen as a compatible institution as was the small guest inn located near by known as the Homestead. Several hundred acres of land owned by Arthur S. Huey, who was owner and operator of both the school and the resort were included in the lakeshore and were purchased by Kuras in 1979 at the cost of $1.3 million. The land exempted from condemnation did not long remain a "compatible use." In 1974, Robert A. Kuras, a savvy Harvard business school graduate and a veteran developer bought into the Huey family's interest in the Homestead property. Initially Kuras was their partner but the Huey's soon found themselves on the losing side of a power struggle for control of the resort. With control over the Homestead Kuras began an aggressive expansion program. In 1979, while the people of Glen Lake were railing against the proposed scenic road, the "National Park land grab," and the Leelanau Enterprise-Tribune headlined "Survey shows summer visitors want Glen Lake area as is," local officials approved Kuras's plan to transform the Homestead into a huge, multipurpose resort complex. Few people thought the expansion a more serious threat than the scenic parkway, but the new Homestead was a major departure from the small scale, "local atmosphere" type of accommodations summer visitors had come to expect in Leelanau. When they approved the new Homestead, Glen Lake residents were fooling themselves that they could have both a large-scale resort development and restrained commercialism.
The new Homestead was an impressive facility with five restaurants, two conference centers, retail shops, five swimming pools, eleven downhill ski runs, and seven tennis courts set along the Lake Michigan beach and at the mouth of the Crystal River. Scores of condominium residential buildings containing 400 individual units sprouted throughout the manicured grounds. The resort also included a dozen single-family homes and a hotel. From the beach at Glen Haven the condominium units, which grew steadily throughout the 1980s, looked like a small city carved out of the forested lakeshore. When it first opened visitors to the Homestead enjoyed accommodations and dining superior to that found anywhere else in the county. Kuras's imagination and dynamic personality made him popular with local politicians. Naturally, the author of nearly 700 local jobs was valued, as someone who was bringing needed economic development to Leelanau County.
Throughout northwest Michigan resort-conference center complexes like the Homestead became popular. Orchards and pastures throughout the region were acquired to build combination golf and ski resorts. Golf courses designed by premier links authorities such as Jack Nicholas and Pete Dye became very popular with vacationing downstate businessmen. By the late 1980s the region had joined the Carolinas and California as one of the leading golf destinations in the United States. The Homestead boasted an asset unlike its rivals-it was located adjacent to the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Guests at the Homestead had sandy beaches and dramatic dunes at their fingertips. What they did not have was a golf course. Kuras felt that the ability to offer a championship caliber golf course was essential to the continued success of the Homestead. Unfortunately, his principal asset became his principal obstacle to expansion; Homestead was surrounded by the national lakeshore. During the mid-1980s Kuras quietly acquired several non-contiguous parcels of land for potential expansion. In the fall of 1986, Kuras announced that Homestead intended to build a golf course and condominium complex on a 254-acre site along the scenic Crystal River.
From the beginning the plan ran into community opposition. The first salvos were fired at an unexpectedly hostile Leelanau County Planning Commission meeting in November 1986. More than sixty people crammed the township hall, most of them in opposition to the golf course. Within four days the Friends of the Crystal River was formed to stop the golf course. Scott Jones, a retired Chicago public relations specialist became its highly effective president. Kuras went to great expense to put together a good development team to plan the golf and condominium complex. He immediately organized several workshops with the community to explain his plan and receive community input. The plan was modified in light of publicly expressed objections. What Kuras gradually discovered, however, was something that the National Park Service had learned long ago: once people in Leelanau made up their minds about something which effected them public presentations would likely generate more heat than light. Every time Kuras modified his plan, Scott Jones and the Friends of the Crystal River countered with the simple observation, why not put the golf course somewhere else?
What many Leelanau County citizens objected to was the location of the golf and residential development along the banks of the Crystal River. The proposed project site currently was a wetland that would have to be filled in to allow Kuras's golf course. It did not take much imagination for people to worry about the effect of replacing the natural water filter of the wetland with a heavily fertilized fairway. Visions of the clear river waters replaced by algae blooms and breeding salmon and trout lost to septic system runoff mobilized opposition. "We cannot take chances with this precious river system," pleaded a local teacher in a Traverse City newspaper article.
Kuras was further hurt by a negative public perception of his career as a developer. The Hawk's Nest condominiums that he placed on a bulldozed hill top above Lake Michigan were not only a stunning visual intrusion on the national lakeshore, but a carelessly planned source of erosion. During periods of heavy rain mud, small trees, and rocks were washed down the slope to private homes and park land below. The elaborate plan of environmental monitoring Kuras proposed for the Crystal River in order to allay environmentalists sounded hollow in the light of such past results. Kuras further alienated people by the way he seemingly tried to win covertly rezoning of the proposed site. He had kept his golf course plan to himself while he sat on the Glen Arbor township zoning board and participated in drawing up the long-range land-use plan. In fact, he first publicly announced the project at a special meeting of the zoning board. This was later denounced in a public petition as a "clear breach of the public trust." As the controversy heated up, accusations surfaced that support of the golf course proposal was being used as a litmus test for filling job vacancies at the resort. By 1988, Robert A. Kuras was the most controversial figure in Leelanau County. Neighbors quarreled over the issue, friends fell out; the Homestead expansion joined religion and politics on the forbidden subject list of homes desiring peace and quiet.
Those who favored the project pointed out that Kuras's development accounted for more than $22 million in local property tax valuation. If Homestead needed a golf course to remain viable, then approval of that plan was vital to the county's economic survival. The golf course proposal revealed fault lines running throughout a community anxious about its future. Like the residents of most resort areas the people of Leelanau County had very ambivalent feelings toward tourists. People from downstate or out of state were the heart of the regional economy, but they were also disparaged as "fudgies," a swarming breed that descended on beaches, shops, and galleries during warm weather and disappeared at the first sign of frost. A stronger hostility was reserved for "fudgies" who sought to stay in the area. "It's not the fudgies who bother us so much, it's the permafudge," Cris Telgard, owner of the Bluebird Restaurant told a Chicago Tribune reporter in 1992. "They come in, build their condos and start taking over." A Glen Arbor resident complained about that new type of visitor to the area, "the lazy rich shopper show off tooling around in the BMW." Such visitors, it was believed, did not really care for the beach combing and hiking offered by the area. "The dilemma is, do we build golf courses to accommodate them or do we send them somewhere else." A former "fudgie" even noticed the difference and complained to the Leelanau Enterprise-Tribune, "It is too bad that it looks like you are being turned into a rich man's playground." The rich brought in their wake jobs for the local people, but also a clash of lifestyles, as was seen in the controversy over hunting restrictions. For many embracing the golf course was consciously a devil's bargain in which they surrendered a part of their community to save the rest.
In the end the local people came down in favor of the project. In September 1987, a referendum of Glen Arbor Township voters approved of rezoning the land in favor of the golf course by a margin of 285-209 in an election that saw nearly ninety percent of electorate participate. But local approval merely set Kuras up for a new round of frustration when he sought a necessary wetlands permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR). After going to great lengths to win the approval of the DNR, Kuras was stunned by the aggressive intervention of the Chicago office of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Environmental Protection Agency effectively stymied the Homestead project for four years. Kuras fought back with political connections. In 1990, State Senator Connie Binsfeld of Glen Arbor was elected Lieutenant Governor. A long-time supporter of Kuras, Binsfeld had previously tried legislative means to speed the environmental review process. Through Binsfeld's liaison Michigan Governor John Engler nudged his political weight behind the golf course plan. Engler met with William Reilly, President George Bush's Environmental Protection Agency administrator. Senator Donald Riegle (D-Michigan), Kuras' friend and former college roommate, was helpful behind the scenes, but after being burned in a notorious savings-and-loan scandal Riegle had to keep a low profile on Homestead. Nonetheless, such high level involvements made the Homestead case a national news story, even earning a spot on NBC's "Today Show." Eventually the Washington, D.C. office of the Environmental Protection Agency pushed aside the Chicago field office and took direct charge of the case. It was to the surprise of no one then, when the agency withdrew its objections to the project, clearing the way for Kuras to at last receive his wetlands permit.
Outflanked on the political front the Friends of the Crystal River fought back in the courts. With five other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, Scott Jones's group sued the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan DNR in federal district court. A restraining order and later a permanent injunction prevented the Environmental Protection Agency and the DNR from issuing the long-sought wetlands permit. Instead, the court argued the review process needed to begin anew with the United States Army Corps of Engineers as the lead agency. By this time the reputations and egos of many powerful people and more than $1 million of Kuras's money were invested in the Homestead golf course. In August of 1992, the Environmental Protection Agency refused to accept the district court ruling and the case was sent to the federal appeals court. Suddenly, however, in November of that year the political wind temporarily went out of Kuras's sails with the election of William J. Clinton as the first Democratic president in more than a decade. A new administration at the Environmental Protection Agency doomed the Homestead appeal in the federal court.
Up to this point the National Park Service had been pretty much on the sidelines in the bitter golf course controversy. In 1988, the Midwest Regional Office provided comment to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which expressed minor reservations about the golf course's potential impact on ground water pollution. Superintendent Richard Peterson consciously dodged efforts to draw the lakeshore into a discussion of Kuras's sensitivity to the environment. "We have a working relationship with the Homestead," he declared. "It's pretty good, actually." In February 1990, Congressman Dale Kildee (D-Flint) drafted a bill to add fourteen Michigan rivers to the Wild and Scenic Rivers System. Many environmental groups lobbied for the Crystal River to be added to the list. Scott Jones and the locally based Friends of the Crystal River worked to defeat this idea out of a clearly expressed desire to keep opposition to the golf course free from the inevitable backlash that would follow National Park Service administration of the river. In 1992, however, the national lakeshore was thrown directly into the furor.
On December 12, 1992, at a news conference in Traverse City, representatives of an "independent" citizens group shook hands with attorneys for the Homestead. Together they announced what they promised would be the solution to the long divisive golf course conflict: Kuras would exchange his 267 acres of Crystal River wetlands for 302 acres of forested uplands within the national lakeshore. For several months people in Leelanau County tried to arrange a compromise settlement. Although the Friends of the Crystal River were clearly winning their fight they wanted to end the dispute in a way that would unite, not divide the community. For Kuras who had sunk several million dollars into the project the compromise was a rope thrown to a drowning man. The swap promised to net him more land, which could be more cheaply developed than the Crystal River wetland, with dramatic Lake Michigan vitas as a bonus. The initial reaction to the news was a collective sigh of relief. Local business organizations and the press all endorsed the proposal.
Unconsulted in the spasm of community goodwill was the National Park Service, either in Empire or Washington, D.C. Superintendent Ivan Miller gamely greeted the news noncommittally: "We're evaluating the proposal and giving it close scrutiny." He tried to dampen enthusiasm for the swap by reminding the press that Congress would have to approve the action, something that was rarely done.
Within a few months, however, the bloom began to fade from the rose of compromise. While the local township boards approved of the swap, a solid phalanx of environmental groups were arrayed against it. They feared a precedent unleashing a rash of future park exchanges with private citizens and regretted the loss of a scenic park upland, including a large chunk of the Bay View Trail. Eventually even the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council and the Friends of the Crystal River, who originally were open to the swap plan, reversed field and joined the opposition. "You don't resolve a problem with another problem," Scott Jones reflected. Nor did the political situation favor the swap. Senator Donald Riegle was too closely associated with Kuras personally and too wounded politically to push the exchange legislation on Capital Hill. Michigan's other Senator, Carl Levin, had a strong environmental record and was loath to move against his allies for so private a cause and so public an issue. After holding his peace for several months Superintendent Miller blasted the swap proposal. "Its like taking a piece out of the Grand Canyon to put in a waterslide," he told the lakeshore advisory commission.
Proponents of the swap, like the Traverse City Record-Eagle, called on the National Park Service to support the compromise and "demonstrate a willingness to be good neighbors to the Homestead." But Kuras hurt his own cause with environmentalists by failing to resolve a faulty septic system at the resort. For more than ten years Kuras boasted of a "state of the art" septic system yet failed to complete his application for a wastewater discharge permit. In 1992, the Department of Natural Resources determined that the sewer system at Homestead was inadequate to serve the resort's 500 condominiums and that leaks from the system were polluting the local ground water supply. "He'd rather spend money on lawyers fighting the DNR," an environmentalist complained, "than on upgrading the system." The park service was already "good neighbor" enough to Kuras who held an easement for a sewage spray field on lakeshore land. In return for that the public received polluted ground water.
By 1995 the land swap deal was hopelessly stalled. Yet like a recurring bad dream the golf course proposal could not be put to rest. In December of that year a second compromise land swap proposal was brokered between the Friends of the Crystal River and the Homestead. In this deal the Homestead would deed to the National Park Service 168 acres of land along the Crystal River for 204 acres of national lakeshore land north of the Homestead. Those involved in the negotiation congratulated themselves on having devised a "local solution" to the controversy. Scott Jones who had led the opposition to the golf course said he was "very happy" with the plan. Every other environmental organization involved, however, were as opposed to this swap as they were the original compromise plan. Superintendent Miller wasted no time in also rejecting the proposal. "We applaud the efforts that these two groups went through," Miller observed. "But there were not enough people at the table. The American public was not there."
It was perhaps inevitable that the river of community divisiveness flowing from the Homestead golf course case would end up being funneled into the familiar channel of negativity toward the National Park Service. Ill-advised comments by environmentalists contributed to the flow of misdirected anger. In rejecting the idea of a swap, the Sierra Club's local director insisted congressional action should clear the way for the National Park Service to condemn and purchase the Crystal River tract outright. The idea of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore being expanded inflamed Leelanau residents on both sides of the issue. This unlikely prospect appeared even more ominous when local property rights advocates dusted off a 1988 report from the National Parks and Conservation Association. The private environmental advocacy group had drafted a "dream" plan for national park expansion, which included adding an additional 94,000 acres to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. Included in the plan were North and South Fox Island, Beaver, Hog, Garden and High islands, and various mainland tracts scattered between Wilderness State Park on the north and Nordhouse Dunes near Ludington on the south. The plan was never given serious consideration when it was new, six years latter it was forgotten by everyone but those paranoid about "communist environmental groups." "Connect the dots," Kathleen Stocklen urged the press. The whole fanciful debate about park expansion, excited further by a well timed visit by Charles Cushman to Glen Arbor, was, in the words of one journalist, "akin to ripping the bandage off a wound that has just begun to heal." Twenty-five years after the creation of the lakeshore emotion rather than reason dictated Leelanau County's response to any issue touching on the National Park Service.
At the time this report was being written the Homestead expansion plan and the proposed swap were still unresolved issues. The controversy illustrated in a telling fashion the difference in outlook between the managers of the national lakeshore and the people of northwest Michigan. A large number of people, both those for and against Robert A. Kuras' drive to expand his resort, saw the issue in terms that were pragmatic and parochial. The bitter controversy was a challenge to the local community and in the best traditions of a democratic society they sought to resolve the issue through compromise. Yet the solution proposed by the land swap proposal could at best be characterized as "passing the buck." In 1995, Scott Jones admitted, "both sides as well as the community are tired of the controversy and would like to see it settled." The park service's response to the swap proposal was bureaucratic and national. The plan was taken by the superintendent to the regional director in Omaha, Nebraska, and discussed in light of their combined experience with the policies of the National Park Service. Their perspective was not what was good for the frustrated residents of Glen Arbor Township, but how did the proposal advance the long-term interests of the broad American public. "The trade does not provide a positive return to the park," observed Assistant Superintendent Duane Pearson. "The National Park Service is not a land holder or owner of lands for the purpose of improving the position of a private entrepreneur."
In the end the swap floundered on the same criteria that led to the creation of the national lakeshore twenty-five years before: national interest. In 1970, saving the Sleeping Bear Dunes area for public use was deemed a national priority by representatives of Americans who lived far away from Michigan's beautiful sandy shores. In 1995, there was no "compelling national reason" to change the boundaries of the lakeshore to allow a developer to build a golf course. The fact is, the constraints that national interest placed on the land use options of the self-reliant people of Benzie and Leelanau counties has always been and likely always will be the source of dissatisfaction with the National Park Service.