Commercial Record News

Yellow light on ‘Old Airport’ land

By Scott Sullivan


After four generations nearly dormant, lights at Saugatuck’s “Old Airport” land have changed from red to yellow.

City council Monday prioritized further studying the the 169.1-acre site, east of 63rd Street and 134th Avenue in Saugatuck Township, for possible use hosting recreational trails, as recommended for now, plus more.

Yes, parts could host Saugatuck High School cross-country races, even large invitationals eventually, helping Trailblazer athletes in that sport continue to grow and learn while showing off Saugatuck to more statewide schools and families.

Recall, running can be a lifetime sport. Others who might train on and benefit from use of attractive trails include younger and older fitness buffs, even and especially beginners, of all ages.

Then, too, it might welcome public and private nature hikes plus more outdoor events, packaged with and in conjunction with local business sponsors, generating revenue to sustain and improve on its operations.

Bought in 1936 for $12,000, the township-surrounded parcel served many uses, including storage for leaves, brush and public works equipment and a snowmobile club.

Visionaries’ big plan emerging from the Depression was runways, landing strips and amenities for air traffic soon to come. Though that didn’t take off — events such as World War II were looming — but like most land investments, this semi-fallow one did too.

A refreshed council and staff in recent years has, City Manager Ryan Heise said Nov. 8, formed a Helen Baldwin-chaired Parks & Public Works Committee to, among other things, renew talks about that asset.

The city hired the nearby Holland-based Outdoor Discovery Center to facilitate a Strengths, Opportunity, Aspiration, Results (SOAR) meeting to help study and report back about the land.

The ODC’s 56-page report may be found on the city’s website, as part of the Nov. 13 council meeting agenda packet. To some extent it piggybacks on a 73-page 2009 report the city contracted with Williams & Works, a Grand Rapids-based planning and consulting firm, during Kirk Harrier’s 14 years as manager. It too can be found in those agenda packets.

The ODC found “a significant mosaic of greenspace within the Kalamazoo River corridor” offering habitats including mature expanses of Mesic Southern Forest, Floodplain Forest, a biodiverse river corridor, vernal pools and multiple non-natural communities facing substantial human disturbance. 

“Based on our findings,” ODC reps said, “we recommend any future development and/or recreational amenities remain on the western half of the property, which is of lower ecological quality. 

“The eastern half consists almost entirely of high-quality habitat that should be preserved to the greatest extent possible,” the report continued.

As next study steps, the ODC recommended:

• Complete an analysis on the monetary value of keeping compost and yard waste drop-off/storage active here, even if the logistics/rules must change slightly to better protect the environment, with the purpose of comparing that value to what it would cost to haul the material elsewhere.

• Engage with the following groups for additional input and/or collaboration: 

Saugatuck Township (whose 40-acre Tails ‘n’ Trails Dog Park lies directly north; Saugatuck Public Schools, Douglas, plus more neighbors and interested parties.

“The Parks and Public Works Committee,” Heise told council, “reviewed results of the SOAR meeting and made a recommendation, to be presented to City Council, allowing staff to conduct due diligence on allowing the public to access existing trails. 

“If approved, staff will review and make recommendations on several items, including but not limited to: 

• Is the property currently insured and at what levels?

• ADA requirements and accommodation;

• Standards for trail maintenance, including signage;

• Parking accommodation and standards of maintenance. 

• Hours of operation and gate closures. 

No, not a green light. Yellow: advance with care.

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