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Presbyterian group’s plan to sell Michigan campsite meets opposition

130-acre property owned by Presbytery Chicago along Saugatuck shoreline thhouses Presbytery’s more than 100-year-old campsite.  (Phocourtesy Lakeshore Camping)

130-acre property owned by the Presbytery of Chicago along the Saugatuck shoreline that houses the Presbytery’s more than 100-year-old campsite. (Photo courtesy Lakeshore Camping)

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Updated: March 7, 2014 1:49PM



To pay off debt it reportedly acquired to settle a sex abuse lawsuit involving one of its former ministers, a Chicago Presbyterian church group is planning to sell a campsite on the shore of Lake Michigan.

A proposal to sell the Saugatuck, Mich., property to a residential developer is upsetting environmentalists and camp supporters.

Opponents have offered a competing proposal, which they say will preserve the 130-acre dunes property and its more than 100-year-old campsite, owned by the Presbytery of Chicago.

The Presbytery, which represents roughly 100 churches in the Chicago metropolitan area, will vote Saturday on a proposal to sell the property for $10 million to Michigan residential developer David Barker. He plans to build multi-million dollar homes on part of the site.

The competing proposal is not on the Saturday agenda, said its proponents, who want it considered and accepted.

The Presbytery plans to sell the property to pay a $7.4 million debt, said the Rev. Robert Reynolds, executive presbyter of the Presbytery. He declined to comment on whether the debt was tied to a settlement from a sexual abuse lawsuit filed in 2002 that alleged a Presbyterian minister, Douglas Mason, sexually abused young boys at a Ukrainian Village youth ministry for at least nine years during the 1990s.

But according to The Layman, an online publication of a Presbyterian advocacy group, the Presbytery took out an $11 million loan after settling the sex abuse claims.

Barker landed Saugatuck Planning Commission approval to build eight homes on the site. His plans call for ultimately building a total of 12 homes on part of the property, with plans for the remainder of the property not yet determined, he said.

The Oval Beach Preservation Society, a nonprofit, has offered to pay $8 million to purchase the 130 acres, said Keith Walker, president of the society. It has agreed to sell 30 of the acres to nonprofit Lakeshore Camping for $2 million, allowing it to continue to operate the camp.

The remainder of the property would be subjected to a conservation easement that would prevent it from ever being developed, he said. The society has a $1 million earnest money deposit and pledges from financial backers to provide the remainder, representatives said.

“We feel that the church as a matter or stewardship of the land should be working with us to preserve the land, and as part of their ministry for the children of Chicago they should be wanting to preserve the camp,” Walker said.

Jennifer Schuham, president of Lakeshore Camping and a ruling elder in the church, echoed that view.

“They do not have to sell it for development,” she said. “Our offer is a good offer. It settles their debt.

“We feel it’s incredibly important that we have to save this camp. It sits on some of the most beautiful pristine dunes that western Michigan has to offer. Since it is so old, the dunes are primarily untouched.”

The Saugatuck Dunes Coastal Alliance, an environmental group, supports the nonprofits’ plan.

But Barker contended his proposal “is far less intense use than what the property is currently being used for.”

Reynolds said the Presbytery is recommending approving Barker’s proposal because it has assurances Barker has the financial support necessary to close the deal, enabling it to pay off its debt by Feb. 28.

“I think it’s very sad about the loss of the camp property and the end of a camp’s ministry that’s extended over a period of 100 years on that property and that’s been supported by the Presbytery of Chicago,” said Reynolds. “It is a beautiful site on the western shores of Lake Michigan, and there’s a great sense of loss that I and many feel about this camp sale. That said, we are also in this position where we must repay our loans. As things have evolved ... while we’ve made efforts to pay our debt otherwise, we’ve not been successful in doing that.”

Email: fknowles@suntimes.com

Twitter: @KnowlesFran



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