Last Chance Beaches part 4

Saugatuck Dunes, Michigan

Saugatuck Dunes, Michigan
Photo: MaryLou Graham,

Saugatuck is only 90 miles by boat from Chicago, but a visit to the classic resort town is like a step back in time. Among its many charms are beaches distinguished by the rare freshwater dunes formed by the waves of Lake Michigan. "Right now, you can see the dunes very much as Europeans saw them 200 years ago," says David Swan, president of the Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance. Yet they may be in peril. The issue: a development proposed for a parcel of beachfront just outside the gates of Saugatuck Dunes State Park.

While the developer maintains that preserving the local culture and ecology are its top priorities, critics contend that the plan to build about 30 homes, a nine-hole golf course, a 66-slip marina, and a small hotel and condos heralds a drastic and deplorable change. Among the worries: The hotel's nine-story tower would forever alter a landscape that has drawn artists for centuries, and the construction will harm the fragile ecology of the 200-foot-high dunes. Local zoning laws prohibit anything of the scale being proposed, but the developer has filed a series of lawsuits to change them. In response, Saugatuck residents recently voted to raise taxes for a legal defense fund. Meanwhile, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Saugatuck Dunes on its 2010 list of the country's most endangered historic places, and the developer has threatened to sue for defamation. Much of the shore remains protected, including Oval Beach, its best-known stretch, and an adjacent parcel the developer sold back to the municipality and state for conservation. But the rest of the shoreline—and the future of the town—hang in the balance.

If you go: Stay at the Sea Suites Boat & Breakfast, an inn located on a 105-foot houseboat docked right outside town. It has four large air-conditioned suites with private baths, and a hot tub on the top deck.

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