News Saugatuck/Douglas Commercial Record

City flies with Old Airport plan

By Scott Sullivan
A mixed Saugatuck City Council Monday accepted a $130,000 donation to convert its Old Airport land into public recreation trails.
The 169.1-acre parcel lies in Saugatuck Township east of I-196, near 63rd Street and 134th Avenue. The city bought it for $12,000 in 1936 with hopes it would host an airport and has left it largely unused, save for placing loose brush and leaf piles, since.
The city — as a Priority 3 Acceptable if not Primary goal last year — explored possible uses nearly 90 years later for the parcel. A similar 2009 city study by contracted Grand Rapids planners Williams & Works led council then to let the land’s real estate value keep appreciating.
Last year a new council, working with city and township parks committees, brought in the 501c3 nonprofit Outdoor Discovery Center to again assess possible parcel uses.
The ODC’s 56-page report, which can be found at, included environmental, ecological and sustainability evaluations, a trail map overview (see graphic reproduced nearby), assessed liability and ADA requirements for rustic trails, made an initial zoning inquiry and set up stakeholders’ planning sessions. It proposed:

  • A trail head (estimated cost $20,000),
  • Parking area ($40,000),
  • Creating trails with signage ($15,000) and
  • Invasives/habitat restoration ($35,000).
    Figured in also was $20,000 for a conservation easement, encompassing steep slopes hard to develop on the land’s north and west sides, semi-circling the planned central trails area.
    Parks and greenspace enthusiasts, Saugatuck High School cross country coaches and more volunteers have since then found donor funds to match those costs.
    “The Department of Public Works,” reported interim city manager Ryan Cummins at council’s May 8 workshop, “expects this new trail system will have a similar impact as others, which require minimal maintenance.
    “There may be times a tree blocks a trail and needs to be cut. Depending on the parking lot material, there may be some need for ongoing maintenance,” he continued.
    “The DPW is developing plans to better manage brush/leaf material so invasives won’t be as prevalent in the future,” Cummins said.
    Councilman Russ Gardner, claiming he was a conservationist May 8 and applauding ODC work done to date, said nonetheless he opposed the proposal.
    “This is putting the cart before the horse,” said Gardner. “This land has value that bears further study before accepting what a small cohort of supporters want. The conservation easement might impinge on its sale value.
    “We have a fiduciary responsibility to our taxpayers to hire an independent assessor to gauge the highest and best use of this asset,” Gardner said.
    “There are no strings attached to accepting this grant,” countered mayor pro-tem Helen Baldwin. “We retain opportunities to do other things with this parcel.
    Council voted 6-1 to approve the ODC proposal contingent upon receiving $130,000 from donors, authorize Cummins to apply for any needed township zoning approvals, and with Mayor Lauren Stanton to sign forms on the city’s behalf as owner.
    “It’s a $130,000 horse. I’m ready to ride it,” council member Scott Dean said.

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