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Land Conservancy Named ‘Watchdog’ for Warren Parks

July 1, 2010 | SWML | St. Joseph, MI


Contact: Scott Aiken

ST. JOSEPH — A judge on Tuesday ruled that the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy is qualified to serve as watchdog to monitor the state’s stewardship of Warren Dunes and Warren Woods parks.

Berrien County Trial Court Judge John Dewane made the finding after a hearing on a proposed amendment to a 2009 judgment that would give title to about 550 acres of park land to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

The court heard several witnesses and reviewed other information before concluding that the conservancy is qualified and has the capability to act independently as special trustee.

The hearing provided an opportunity for the public to comment on matters affecting the future of a popular resource. Warren Dunes on Lake Michigan near Bridgman is the state’s busiest park, attracting more than a million visitors a year.

“We’re looking down the road years and years,” the judge said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Portage-based SWMLC would serve as monitor under the proposed amended judgment, which is supported by the conservancy, the state attorney general’s office and others involved in litigation over the land and its trustee.

Dewane said that when certain changes are made, as agreed by all parties, he will sign the amended judgment.

The Department of Natural Resources, now the DNRE, was appointed successor trustee for the land in 2009, but the judge left the title vested in the court, saying that additional oversight was needed.

Although the state has managed the parks for decades, the judge at the time of last year’s ruling pointed out examples of changing government positions, such as Indiana’s decision to sell the Toll Road to a foreign joint venture group for $3.8 billion.

The amended judgment now before the court would give title to the Warren Dunes and Warren Woods property to the DNRE but prohibit the agency from selling, leasing or granting an interest in any part of it.

Formed in 1991, the nonprofit SWMLC has preserved about 8,450 acres of land, or 13 square miles, in nine counties through conservation easements, purchases and gifts. The organization has 1,200 members, an annual budget of $500,000 and a staff of five full-time and two part-time employees.

SWMLC would not be involved in day-to-day operation or maintenance of the parks but would monitor DNRE’s compliance with restrictions on the property title specified by the judgment. The restrictions include holding and maintaining the land forever as public parks.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Suzanne Klein, lawyer for the land conservancy, called three witnesses to testify about the organization’s capability to serve as special trustee.

Much of the questioning was about SWMLC’s ability to function independently of the DNRE.

George Burgoyne, who retired from the DNR in 2004 after 33 years and is now a member of the SWMLC board, said 80 percent of the conservation organization’s funding is donated by private sources.

“The second thing I see is our board is very proud of our independence,” he said.

Burgoyne, a Berrien County native, said he is familiar with the Warren Woods and Warren Dunes land and is aware of its significance.

“I view this as an extra layer of protection for a very special area,” he said of designating SWMLC special trustee.

Burgoyne said that during his last DNR position he was responsible for the land management functions covering 4.5 million acres. Over the years, he said, it was sometimes helpful to have a local organization watching over land that had special qualities.

Dewane reminded Burgoyne of oil and gas leases on public land sold by the state in past years and asked if SWMLC could bring such a proposal to the court’s attention if one arose involving Warren Woods or Warren Dunes.

“I have no doubt in my mind,” Burgoyne said.

Paw Paw lawyer Harold Schuitmaker, corporate counsel for Van Buren County, and Kip Miller, chief naturalist for Berrien County parks, also testified on behalf of SWMLC.

Under the amended judgment, SWMLC is to be responsible only to the court, and if necessary after giving notice to the DNRE, can enforce compliance with the restrictions in the judgment.

The court could ask the conservancy to examine the property and report findings.

The restrictions are in keeping with those set by Three Oaks industrialist Edward K. Warren and his wife, Mary, who deeded the land to a charitable trust in 1918.

The Edward K. Warren Foundation leased the land in both parks to the state for 100 years.

A 1937 agreement covered 250 acres in Lake Township, now part of the 1,952-acre Warren Dunes park, and a 1949 agreement for the 300 acres in Warren Woods in Chikaming Township.

In 2009, Dewane appointed the Department of Natural Resources, which this year became DNRE, successor trustee for the land. The DNR was named to replace the Warren Foundation, which dissolved in 1964.

While designating the DNR as successor trustee, the court retained title to the property.

The attorney general appealed Dewane’s decision about the title, but while the appeal was pending the parties agreed to the amended judgment.

In October 2008 Dewane dismissed a complaint filed by heirs of Edward K. and Mary Warren, who sought to resurrect the long-defunct Warren foundation.

The judge found that there was no statutory basis for renewal or reinstatement.

The trust then vested in the court until Dewane named the DNR as successor.

The state’s petition for appointment of the DNR as successor trustee was consolidated with the Warren heirs’ complaint.

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