News & Politics » Feature

The Selling of Forest Beach

The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago has sold its 65 acres of pristine Michigan duneland. Critics of the deal want to know: Why was the sale so quick? Why was the price so low?

by and


As you follow the curve of Lake Michigan east from Chicago, past the smokestacks of Indiana, toward the border of Michigan, the shoreline changes. The midwestern plain gives way to sensuous sweeps of sand. These are the dunes, a fragile world held fast by grass and scrub against the winds that beat from the west.

"Nowhere were [the dunes] better developed than on the eastern and southern shores of Lake Michigan," observed a 1979 report of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. "These dunes are somewhat unique, and, collectively, probably represent the largest accumulation of sand dunes along any fresh water body in the world. The environmental . . . conditions under which they were formed no longer exist: once destroyed, these dunes are not likely ever to regain their present significant size and extent."

For the first ten thousand years after a retreating glacier left them in its wake, the dunes were threatened only by high winds and waves. Now man has stepped in. Up and down the west coast of Michigan, condominiums, dockominiums, and exclusive vacation developments are rising amid the sandy slopes.

The commercial eye of this storm of real estate development is New Buffalo, Michigan. Only 90 minutes from Chicago's Loop, boasting one of the largest harbors on the lake, this town of 3,000 year-round inhabitants swells to three or four times that number in the summer. It has taken to billing itself and its surrounding communities as "Harbor Country," which you'll also hear called the Riviera of the midwest, or Chicago's Hamptons, or "media beach"--thanks to all the Chicago celebrities who own summer houses there.

Just south of town, in governmentally distinct New Buffalo Township, you might come across 65 acres of pristine duneland that used to be one of Harbor Country's best-kept secrets--Forest Beach Camp and Conference Center. The YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago bought two-thirds of this land back in 1918 and added the rest in 1964; aside from some camp buildings the property had been left virtually untouched. Forest Beach's towering dunes, natural fern grotto, and half mile of beaches were cherished by the children, working women, and disadvantaged families--most of them from inner-city Chicago--who came camping in the summer. Local schools used the camp for nature walks and art classes. Many second-home owners from Chicago didn't know Forest Beach existed.

But Forest Beach became a financial burden on the YWCA, and last September the Y board put it up for sale. Five months later the Y signed over the deed to a developer who intended to parcel the land and resell it. Last February 24, just 48 hours after the closing, bulldozers smashed through the walls of the camp's dining hall and lodge. Y members from Chicago who'd come to New Buffalo for a public hearing on the camp ran from the township hall in tears and spoke extravagantly of hurling themselves in front of the bulldozers.

Like a violent Lake Michigan squall that refuses to blow over, controversy over the sale has swept up not only the Y, the new owner, and New Buffalo Township, but also the governments of Michigan and Illinois. Suits have been filed in both states. Opposite factions shout each other down at township meetings that are also sartorial collisions--the black pinstripe suits of the developers and their lawyers against the blue jeans and sport shirts of the locals. And war is waged in the letters columns of the local papers:

"Building those homes on Forest Beach not only brings needed construction to our area but will add to long-term stability. Come on, New Buffalo, we are tired of hearing you cry . . ."

"By the time we arrived at the camp the developers' equipment had done its damage and one of Forest Beach's historic buildings lay leveled to the ground. Seventy years of history torn lifeless in forty short minutes . . ."

May 29, 1989. Three months have passed since the YWCA sold the Forest Beach Camp property to R. Steven Lutterbach, a Michigan City, Indiana, businessman, for $2,833,330.

Mrs. H. Earl Hoover, elderly guardian of the Hoover vacuum-cleaner fortune and for decades a staunch supporter of the YWCA, receives a telephone call at her summer residence in northern Michigan. Because no one from the Y ever bothered to inform her, only now does she hear--from a reporter--that the sale of Forest Beach Camp has been completed, that Hoover Hall, the graceful lodge overlooking Lake Michigan that her husband's family built for the Y in 1921, has been destroyed.

"Oh, that's really sad. I just can't tell you how sad that is. They didn't even have the courtesy to tell me that. . . . It's just a tragedy."

Mrs. Hoover is not a sentimental bystander in this saga. A former YWCA board member who recognized that the camp was in jeopardy, Mrs. Hoover visited Forest Beach in the spring of 1988 and then wrote the Y a letter. She made an offer: if the Y kept Forest Beach she would pay for the restoration of Hoover Hall (designed, she believes, by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright and renovated twice before by the Hoover family). "We had figured it would be about $100,000 or whatever," she recalls. "I said to the board of directors that I would do all this if they were not going to sell. And that's when we parted ways, when I heard nothing from the board at all. They did not answer my letters. . . . I think the board at Chicago has something to answer to."

Mrs. Hoover sent letters to Audrey Peeples, executive director of the YWCA, and to Jane Heckman, director of the Forest Beach Camp and Conference Center. They were mailed in June, and Mrs. Hoover was still awaiting a reply on September 26, 1988, when a crucial board meeting was held. Heckman distributed copies of Mrs. Hoover's letter at this meeting, and during her presentation to the board alluded to Mrs. Hoover's offer. She recalls that the president of the board, Pamela Bruce, commented, "Well, this is new information!"

Pamela Bruce says now, "Mrs. Hoover never spoke with me and I never saw anything. . . . It sounds like if indeed she made this proposal, we'll say that somehow it was lost in the translation or lost in communication."

Perhaps Mrs. Hoover's offer was new to Pamela Bruce. Like much inconvenient information that gets in the way of decisions all but made, it did not receive much of a welcome. There were few questions about the letter, just as there was little enthusiasm for Heckman's report on the feasibility study that she had been assigned to do nine months before. Now Heckman suggested keeping the 43 acres that the Y had purchased in 1918 and built its camp on, while selling, leasing, or developing on its own the other 22 acres. In addition, Heckman said, the camp could be used as many as 220 days a year, instead of the present 124.

But Priscilla Florence, chairman of the Forest Beach Camp Committee (Mrs. Hoover once held the same post), told the board that if the Y kept the camp it would have to spend some $300,000 on repairs (apart from Hoover Hall). And two Saint Joseph, Michigan, realtors invited to the meeting said that this was as good a time to sell as any.

According to board minutes, Priscilla Florence had asked board member Mary Spellman for help in solving the Forest Beach problem because Spellman, then the president of Rubloff Corporate Services, a division of the giant Rubloff real estate firm, knew real estate and also knew the New Buffalo area, where she had a summer home. Spellman, a recent addition to the board who by various accounts was the engine driving it to unload the camp, brought in Brian Tunnell and David Fister, partners in a newly formed Saint Joseph real estate firm, Vertex Group, Inc.

Fister and Tunnell had already spoken to the board when Heckman gave her report. They'd explained that as "raw" land, Forest Beach was reaching its peak in value, that a 1986 appraisal placing the camp's value at $2,250,000 was within 10 percent of its current value, and that the local real estate market could not continue to grow at the same rate it had grown over the past five years.

In the months ahead, other estate brokers, appraisers, developers, and property owners would denounce this cautious forecast as standing reality on its ear. The 1986 appraisal was completed during a period of high lake levels and significant beach erosion. In 1988 lake levels dropped, and since then lakefront property values have skyrocketed.

But there would be no more appraisals. The board had not come to this meeting to shilly-shally. After the directors heard out Jane Heckman, a brief discussion led to a motion to place Forest Beach Camp on the market. It carried, 11 votes to 8. The property would be listed with the Vertex Group. The asking price would be in line with the Vertex Group's considered judgment--$2.8 million.

To follow the serpentine path of the Forest Beach real estate deal it's important to understand that within the YWCA alone there are two factions: the Y executive board and the dissidents.

The facts, according to the executive board, which dominates the much larger board of directors, can be summed up as follows: Forest Beach Camp, though a rare and valuable property, was a financial burden on the Y. The programs there were never enough to cover expenses. The board decided it was time for the Y to cut its losses. The board took a legal vote to sell the property, found a highly qualified buyer, and signed on the dotted line.

In the opinion of the dissidents, who are led by Suzanne England, a board member who resigned in protest over the way the sale was handled, and Y member Joanne Cahnman, here is what really happened: Though Forest Beach was running a deficit, it could have been made self-sustaining. But a faction on the board of directors' executive board railroaded the Y into a quick sale to a preselected buyer at a bargain rate. With the new owner now offering building sites for prices that total more than three times what he paid for the camp, it is clear that the Y denied itself millions of dollars it could have made in the deal while trashing its heritage of service and respect for the environment.

One of the first parties to express an interest in buying Forest Beach was New Buffalo Township, which wanted the camp for a public park and beach. Local attorney Larry Frankle represented the township pro bono in negotiations with the YWCA, and he's now one of the most vocal critics of the Y and its brokers, Brian Tunnell and David Fister.

"Tunnell," he charges, "is not a realtor with any kind of track record at all. He's not from the area, and all the people I know said Tunnell told them 'No more than 2.8 million.'"

Local real estate broker Jerry Olson also says that the Vertex Group did not seem interested in bids either under or over $2.8 million, or even in scheduling appointments to show the property. "We had two offers through our office and we did have difficulty scheduling the showing. . . . I didn't get a response. They finally called back but I got a little upset because I felt if you're doing a job for your client and don't respond--I still can't understand why it was rushed through the way it was. It's just not logical." Olson also wonders why the Vertex Group insisted on closed bids "when there was such massive interest in the property."

The hottest real estate broker in New Buffalo is probably Karen Conner, a former Chicagoan (for a time she was Mayor Jane Byrne's director of special events) who in 1988 was the top Re/Max saleswoman in Michigan. She might have been an obvious person for the YWCA to get in touch with, but the Y didn't. Conner heard through the grapevine that Forest Beach was going on the block and she contacted Audrey Peeples.

Conner wanted the business. Peeples told her there wasn't much time left for her to try to get it, so Conner worked on her proposal for two straight days and brought it in. When she sat down with Peeples, Spellman, Bruce, and some of the other Y officers, she told them she wanted to take three or four months and market Forest Beach nationally. Buy lots of publicity. "You let the whole world know it's available," Conner says now. She told the board she'd evaluated the land at $3.2 to $3.8 million and the Y should ask $3.8--you can always go down. (In fact, it wouldn't have surprised her if bidding had driven the eventual sale price up to $5 million. "It's a simple matter of supply and demand," Conner says. "There is no more supply. There is lots and lots of demand. The sky is the limit for lakefront.")

But Conner's ideas seemed to make the executive board uneasy. "I was told, 'Your estimate is much higher than everyone else's.' I said, 'Are you complaining?'"

Apparently they were. She didn't get the listing.

One of Jerry Olson's clients was attorney James Fox, a general partner in F/Terrestris, a venture company put together by Fox and the Terrestris Development Company of Oak Brook to bid on Forest Beach. Fox says that he did not find out that Forest Beach was for sale until November 21, two months after the Y decided to put it on the market, because the property wasn't advertised in the usual places, not even in the Sunday Chicago Tribune. Fox says his one chance to visit the property was the day after Thanksgiving, and because F/Terrestris's engineer couldn't make it on such short notice F/Terrestris wound up making a $3.1 million bid full of contingencies--they simply weren't sure yet how much building the land would accommodate.

"We were prepared to pay more than our offer," says Fox. "If I could have eliminated some of the risk, we would have gone higher. There's been a phenomenal increase in lakefront property prices, and we were well aware of that, and that's the reason we made an offer above what we understood was the asking price."

"Mr. Fox is full of shit and you can quote me on that," says Brian Tunnell. "Mr. Fox had a broker with which we were working and [that] broker was on that property twice. . . . No one asked to see the property who did not get on the property to see it pretty much when they wanted to. There were 36 potential buyers. I showed it some 22 times to 22 different people and we got 13 different offers in. Now I hardly think that could be represented as an insufficient effort to generate interest in the property."

James Fox and Karen Conner both say that rebids are routinely solicited when properties of the scale of Forest Beach are marketed. It would have been improper to play one bidder off against another, Tunnell responds, and he's right. But Conner explains that's not what rebidding is about; it's to give the seller a chance to eliminate the contingencies in the original bids so the bidders can come back in with higher offers.

Tunnell agrees that Forest Beach wasn't heavily advertised. But he insists it didn't need to be. "We did news releases here. There were news releases done in Chicago"--one of them picked up by the Tribune. "The response that we received told me that it was sufficient."

The Y, says Tunnell, "clearly acted in the best interests of the membership. They got a good price very quickly for the property and they sold it to someone who took it with no contingencies."

As for Frankle's beef that a real estate agent from Saint Joseph isn't going to know the market in New Buffalo, half an hour to the south, Tunnell replies, "Yeah, like there's a big difference between Naperville and Aurora."

But there is a big difference between Saint Joseph and New Buffalo. The difference is that the New Buffalo real estate market is going crazy. And the critics of Tunnell and Fister don't think the $2.8 million price reflects that craziness.

On December 15, 1988, bidding was closed on the Forest Beach property. A letter dated December 12 went out to new Y board members informing them of the "critical" December 19 meeting in Chicago to "review recommendations" on the sale. The dissidents claim the notice was tardily mailed and obscured what they believe was the true purpose of the meeting--to choose the next owner of Forest Beach.

Larry Frankle says that just before the meeting he met with Bruce, Spellman, Peeples, and the Y board's lawyer. He had the feeling that Bruce, a vice president of First National Bank (she's now a partner in a realty firm) with a home on Astor Street, and Spellman, of Lake Shore Drive, and the others looked at him as a species of rural wildlife.

Frankle outlined for them the details of New Buffalo Township's $2.8 million offer, a deal he now says was unbeatable: the property would remain in its natural state and the Y would be able to rent it for its programs. In essence, the township would be purchasing the right of first refusal: if funding, which wasn't quite pinned down yet, fell through, the Y would get the property back, along with the township's promise to initiate rezoning if the back-up offer for the property were contingent on the freedom to develop it.

Frankle says he told the board that he had an oral commitment from the Nature Conservancy, a national conservation society, to purchase the property for New Buffalo Township. The Nature Conservancy assists public agencies and other private organizations in buying land at risk that meets its criteria for protection. In most cases the conservancy requires eventual repayment of its investment.

"They [the board] were incredibly callous," Frankle recalls. "I had a very strong feeling it was already done, they were just going through the motions. Their attitude was 'Did you bring the money?' I swear, even if I had brought the money, they would have told me--go jump in the lake! They were like--you're a Podunksville guy from Podunksville. Their attitude was 'Why are you wasting our time? We've got to go. We've got a meeting to go to.' Mary Spellman was the rudest. I told them, 'Look, the market's just exploding up there. What is your rush?' They said, 'That's none of your business . . .' Even though they had claimed they were interested in preserving the land they told me quite frankly they didn't give a damn about that. In fact, in their selling of the property to Lutterbach there were no deed restrictions other than retaining a two-acre fern grotto, nothing else. He could build a high rise!"

Says Frankle, "You can't even sell a lot, let alone an acreage piece like that, and not investigate the sale more. My God! Look at how people market dippy little condos out here!"

The board decided by a vote of 18 to 2 at that December 19 meeting to sell Forest Beach to R. Steven Lutterbach. Ever since, the new owner has maintained that "any inference that there were back-room deals is manipulation of the media and a figment of somebody's imagination." Because the sale is now in court, board members won't comment on Frankle's allegations. But Y attorneys have denied that a deal was rushed through.

Even before Lutterbach was chosen, the Y dissidents were working frantically to try to stop the sale. Last fall, less than three weeks after the board decided to sell the camp, concerned YWCA members asked for a special meeting of the board to debate the destiny of Forest Beach.

These women, some of them Y staff members, tend to talk about the camp in terms of "mission" and "stewardship of the land." They coalesced around Joanne Cahnman, a former Chicago schoolteacher blessed with the means to fund the legal battle that appeared to be necessary to save the camp.

The dissidents say that from the very beginning they were frustrated in their attempts to talk to the board. Finally they were given time right after the general board meeting of December 5, which was a few days prior to the deadline for submitting bids on Forest Beach. The dissidents asked that the criteria for selling the camp include guarantees that the land would be protected and the camp programs maintained. They urged the board to accept the offer of New Buffalo Township, the only bidder they were aware of that could make those guarantees.

But a few minutes before, at the general meeting, a largely new YWCA board had been inducted. Pamela Bruce remained president and Mary Spellman became treasurer, but many of the directors now beseeched to take a strong stand on the Forest Beach issue barely understood it. Two weeks later this novice board followed the recommendation of the Forest Beach Sale Committee to accept the bid of R. Steven Lutterbach.

The dissidents met every Saturday after that and began to gather information for a legal fight with the executive board. One of them was Suzanne England, who'd joined the board in December and would resign in February, protesting that the executive board had never given her enough information on the sale of Forest Beach to decide for herself if it was right or wrong.

On February 15, England and Joanne Cahnman filed a complaint in Cook County Circuit Court accusing Bruce and Spellman of breach of fiduciary duty. An accompanying motion asked the court for a temporary restraining order and injunction to stop the sale.

This request was denied six days later, and the next day the Y sold the property to Lutterbach.

The dissidents, represented by Chicago attorneys Thomas McDonough and James Dowd, filed an amended complaint on May 22 against Bruce, Spellman, and the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago. But again the dissidents were frustrated, as the same judge, Harold Siegan, found that McDonough and Dowd had cited a repealed statute. McDonough calls this a "clerical error." The real question, he says, still has not been addressed in court: did the Y board improperly sell Forest Beach Camp?

Obviously yes, say the dissidents. The most generous construction they can make of the facts as they know them is that a handful of high-powered professional Chicago women on a mission to revitalize an old and weary organization took over the YWCA; Forest Beach, a place where they had certainly never gone to camp as children, was to them just a flow of red ink to be stanched swiftly and unsentimentally. Getting their way on the board, they took some bad advice and committed a terrible blunder.

"Not-for-profit corporations," McDonough says, "historically have been sitting ducks for improper activities by insiders because it's nobody's money. . . . They tend to have a core group that runs them. . . . I don't think the overwhelming majority of directors did anything wrong.

"They dropped in for a luncheon meeting," he continues, referring to the meeting last September 26 at which the board heard from Tunnell and Fister and then put the camp up for sale, "and they ended up giving away two million dollars, perhaps, of corporate assets. All they wanted to do was have lunch and go along with everybody."

The least generous construction is that the Y's leaders, rather than blundering, had some unfathomable reason for giving Lutterbach an inexplicably good price.

Suzanne England doesn't say that. But she says, "I have had the feeling that there was something deliberate about the way the process was handled but I can't prove that."

According to England, the controversy has wounded the YWCA terribly. "In the kind of organization this is," she says, "that's a devastating kind of event--to have your board being unable to recall the trust of a major group of members."

The national headquarters of the YWCA in New York has refused to comment on the Forest Beach controversy on grounds that the Y of Metropolitan Chicago is autonomous.

One point in the dissidents' suit is that the Y board voted to sell to a nonexistent corporation, Forest Beach Properties, Inc. When the sale was concluded, however, the Y signed over the deed to R. Steven Lutterbach. Forest Beach Properties, Inc., was not incorporated until six days after the February 22 closing.

So what? says Brian Tunnell of the Vertex Group. "No one cares in a real estate transaction how someone's going to take title. Mr. Lutterbach personally guaranteed the property. We don't care if he took it under the name Rin Tin Tin. However he took title was immaterial to the seller--it always is."

James Fox doesn't argue with Tunnell here. "That doesn't bother anybody, I don't think," Fox says. "That wouldn't bother me."

The heart of the dissidents' argument is that Y officers like Bruce and Spellman and first vice president Jacqueline Atkins, who at the time was assistant vice president of the real estate division of First Chicago Investment Advisors, were far too experienced in real estate to have sold Forest Beach for so little. As proof it went for a song, they point to a series of real estate transactions that occurred March 1.

On that day Lutterbach and his wife Elizabeth deeded a little over an acre of their new property to the Forest Beach Development Corporation, Inc., for $750,000. That corporation is controlled by Lutterbach's attorney, Roccy De Francesco, who's a major player in the New Buffalo real estate market, and New Buffalo developer James Stevens.

Lutterbach then transferred the rest of his 65 acres to his own newly created Forest Beach Properties, Inc., and mortgaged it for $3,975,000.

The dissidents say these maneuvers show that the camp the Y sold for $2.83 million was actually worth more than $4.7 million. Lutterbach says they show nothing at all. "I bought [the property] individually--Rick Lutterbach--and then transferred it into a subchapter S corporation called Forest Beach Properties, Inc. Like most people, for liability purposes I put it in a corporation rather than owning it individually."

Brian Tunnell agrees. "You know," he says, "the mortgage on a property has absolutely nothing to do with the value of a property. It has to do with your ability to convince a bank to give you a mortgage on it. Mr. Lutterbach is very, very substantial personally, meaning many times the value of that property; so if I were a banker I would loan him six or seven million dollars against that property; so long as he were personally guaranteeing the loan."

At any rate, the $2.83 million is certainly dwarfed by what Lutterbach is currently asking for the 44 empty lots he has carved out--a total of $9.2 million. "We sold half the lakefront lots, property's going up all the time," says Joe Clancy, executive vice president of Forest Beach Properties, Inc., "so it's a good investment. If we don't build for a year we don't build for a year; if we don't build for two years we don't build for two years and the prices are that much more."

Yet between R. Steven Lutterbach and his profit stand at least two major obstacles: recreational zoning and new state laws protecting Michigan's sand dunes.

Of the 13 offers ultimately presented by the Y's Forest Beach Camp Committee to the board (one of them for $266,670 more than Lutterbach's), only Lutterbach's was not contingent on the site's being rezoned from recreational to residential. And so far, it hasn't been.

Lutterbach won the first round when the New Buffalo Township Planning Commission supported his request for rezoning, but lost round two as the Berrien County Planning Commission opposed it. The township board has the last word, and that's where the matter is now. Frustrated, Lutterbach hired a Grand Rapids law firm, and in May he filed suit in U.S. District Court against New Buffalo Township and its supervisor, Erich Hamburger.

The suit alleges that township officials are conspiring to deprive him of the use of his property and that Hamburger, himself a developer who is marketing property adjacent to Forest Beach, has continued to participate in township matters dealing with Forest Beach, creating a conflict of interest.

As if the matter weren't already complicated enough, on July 5 Governor James Blanchard signed into law a bill designating 70,000 acres of Lake Michigan and Lake Superior shoreline as critical sand dunes that must be protected. The Great Lakes Sand Dunes Protection Act imposes stringent setback requirements on buildings in the dunes and prohibits development on any slopes greater than 25 percent. Lutterbach's application to build on Forest Beach will be one of the first to be processed under the new law.

Lutterbach can't build without a permit from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Lutterbach and De Francesco already have received at least two letters from the department warning them that the site plans they have submitted to the state may not conform to the law.

On February 24, the same day bulldozers leveled Hoover Hall, staff from the Department of Natural Resources visited Forest Beach to determine the location of dune bluff lines. The department wrote De Francesco: "Heavy equipment was observed and staff noted what sounded like trees or buildings being cleared in an apparent attempt to ready the site for construction. We would urge you to suspend this activity until site plans have been finalized and all design changes incorporated."

In a second letter to De Francesco four months later, Martin Jannereth, head of Natural Resources' shore lands management unit, stated that he was "truly appalled by your efforts to circumvent the Shorelands Protection and Management Act. . . . I repeat, a permit has not been issued for any permanent structures on the Forest Beach property. . . . If any construction occurs prior to permit approval, the Department will seek enforcement action."

That's tough language. But when he was asked later to comment on his letter, Jannereth said it was all a "misunderstanding." He said De Francesco apparently had believed that 60 days after applying for a building permit, a developer who wasn't explicitly rejected received one automatically, and that Lutterbach had ordered a "flurry of activity" because "they realized the new law was going to be passed and they wanted to quick get it done." In general, said Jannereth, Lutterbach and De Francesco have been cooperative.

This spring, after New Buffalo Township's bid for Forest Beach had been turned down, supporters urged the township to exercise its right of eminent domain. Encouraged by attorney Larry Frankle, the township scheduled a nonbinding referendum on April 25 in order to find out if residents wanted the township to continue to pursue the purchase of the Forest Beach property.

But in April, township attorney John Spelman resigned, and a Saint Joseph law firm was hired to replace him. One of the first things done by Paul Kelley, a partner in the firm, was advise the township to cancel the referendum, as well as the public hearing that had been scheduled to precede it. Kelley objected to the "awkwardly drawn" wording of the proposition, which he said didn't address the issue at hand: rezoning. Furthermore, Lutterbach had made it clear he was getting ready to sue. Kelley didn't want to hand Lutterbach evidence that the township was out to get him.

As Lutterbach's suit drags on, the office of the attorney general of Illinois has begun issuing subpoenas for information into the sale of Forest Beach. The office wants to know if Illinois charitable-organization laws may have been violated.

If you steer a boat out of New Buffalo harbor and turn south, hugging the shore, you will pass a series of condominiums and private residences perched along the shoreline. About a mile from the harbor the houses stop abruptly and Forest Beach begins, a half mile of beach framed by dunes carpeted with lush grasses, bushes, and trees.

A large red-and-white sign marks the beginning of the former YWCA camp. The sign says simply, Forest Beach, and below it is a Michigan City, Indiana, telephone number. Nearby, a smaller sign warns, No Trespassing, Private Property.

Two other Forest Beach signs further mark the camp's portion of the shore, the last one set close to an enormous dune that towers over the area. Then the camp ends, and a shocking change immediately takes place. A flat, desolate landscape lies under the summer sun. There are no trees, virtually no vegetation. A dune that once rose up from the shore here has been moved south, leaving a miniature desert in the midst of which a new, ultramodern house is being constructed.

This is the Eiffel Tower Subdivision, informally known as "Erich's sandbox," an 80-acre parcel of land purchased in 1959 by New Buffalo supervisor Erich Hamburger, who began to develop it in 1982. At that time, there was no law against moving sand dunes.

R. Steven Lutterbach vows that this kind of rapacious development will never happen at Forest Beach. He vows to respect the natural beauty of the spot. But then, the new sand dunes legislation gives him no choice. The law that took effect July 5 prohibits him from leveling the dunes as Hamburger did--which is not to say Lutterbach ever had such an act in mind. The state of Michigan, stepping into a pitched battle between developers and conservationists, decided to place society's interest in preserving irreplaceable duneland above the property rights of private citizens. Now New Buffalo Township, locked in its own tug-of-war between pro- and antidevelopment factions, must decide a more refined question: to rezone Forest Beach so that Lutterbach can build at all, or not to rezone it.

A couple of compromises have been proposed. Lutterbach said that if the township cooperated with him on rezoning and building permits, he'd help it buy a 150-foot-long parcel of shoreline just north of Forest Beach that could be turned into the park the township says it wants. The township didn't bite. Paul Kelley suggested amending the zoning laws to permit Lutterbach to do some limited building on land zoned recreational. This compromise also went nowhere.

As one informed observer puts it, Forest Beach is "like the abortion controversy--it's an all-or-nothing situation from both sides."

Both sides? The YWCA alone furnishes "both" sides. Then there's the township's side, and the developer's side, and the oars in the water belonging to various fringe players, such as the Harbor Country Chamber of Commerce, for example, which recently went looking for sites for a possible executive conference center and wound up with Forest Beach at the top of the list.

There's too much here for any one party to sort out.

So the New Buffalo Township Board will decide. And the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. And the U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Not to mention the office of the attorney general of Illinois and the Circuit Court of Cook County. Each fingering its separate pieces of the puzzle, these bodies are going to try to figure out what has already taken place and if someone should be blamed and if so, who, and then decide what happens next. At least this much is clear: once gone, Forest Beach is gone forever; Lake Michigan's ancient sand dunes cannot be tampered with and then restored to their primeval state--ever.

As Mrs. Hoover was saying about Hoover Hall, "That's what's sad about our country. We just knock things down and then we say, 'It shouldn't be.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.

Comments (9)

Showing 1-9 of 9

Add a comment

Add a comment