Standing-room-only crowd backs Muskegon County’s plan to transform massive Nugent Sand property into recreational space

An aerial shot of the Nugent Sand property. Image courtesy of Cherette Group.

Muskegon County’s proposal to purchase 377 acres of the former Nugent Sand property in Norton Shores and transform it into a public recreational space was met with widespread support from the standing-room-only crowd that packed a Norton Shores Library room for a meeting on the county’s plan Tuesday evening.

“I know this means a lot to a lot of people out there,” Muskegon County Administrator Mark Eisenbarth told the approximately 120 people at the gathering.

“I met with the owner last Friday, and he’s anxious to work through this with us,” the county administrator continued, referring to Nugent Sand owner Robert Chandonnet. “He really likes the idea, and he’s willing to work with us. He’s very excited about this working out.”

Led by Eisenbarth with support from Caitlin Hegedus, the marketing and operations manager for Visit Muskegon, Tuesday’s meeting was held to gauge public interest and gather input from residents on the proposal to purchase the former Nugent Sand property at 2925 Lincoln St. in Norton Shores. [To see the presentation from Tuesday’s meeting, you can click here.]

The county announced last week that it is partnering with the Land Conservancy of West Michigan and Shoreline Development Assistance, an environmental consultant, on a proposal to purchase one of the largest remaining tracts of Lake Michigan frontage in the state of Michigan and turn it into a public recreational space. Situated close to Roosevelt Park and the city of Muskegon’s Beachwood-Bluffton, Lakeside and Glenside neighborhoods, the vast site has two inland lakes—a 120-acre south lake and 61-acre north lake—includes 1,917 feet of Lake Michigan frontage, and sits on protected Lake Michigan critical dune.

The below video from Cherette Group provides an expansive view of the Nugent Sand site.

The potential recreational space could include a wide variety of additions, including hiking trail development, camping, scenic overlooks, fishing areas, kayak launches, Lake Michigan or inland lake beach access, parking areas, and more, county officials said. The lakes within the facility would be “quiet lakes;” no motorized boat traffic would be allowed. Canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding could be available.

Attendees at Tuesday’s meeting expressed support for the plan; no one spoke against it. When one individual asked how many people in the crowd supported the project, almost everyone—if not everyone—raised their hands.

“For anyone who hasn’t been to Ottawa Sands, take a walk there—it will give you a vision of what could happen here,” one meeting participant said, referring to Ottawa County’s 353-acre park that was previously a sand mine and recently debuted to the public in October 2019.

Eisenbarth also said the Muskegon project could be similar to Ottawa Sands.

Valued at about $11 million, the Ottawa Sands land was purchased this past summer by Ottawa County and the Land Conservancy of West Michigan. The site’s former owner, Ottawa Sand Company, provided approximately $3 million for the purchase. Ottawa County used a $4.2 million state grant to help with the purchase, and the Land Conservancy bought the rest of it and then leased it to the county.

Residents at Tuesday’s meeting voiced support for non-motorized boating, “limited archery,” and fishing at the former Nugent Sand site. Some said they were in favor of any form of camping, while others said they would prefer to see tent camping instead of allowing large campers. One attendee encouraged the county to form a “citizens’ advisory group” for this project in order to amass regular public input throughout the process.

Meeting attendees raise their hands to indicate their support for the proposal to transform the Nugent Sand property into a public recreational space. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Others raised questions about environmental concerns at the site following about a century of sand mining. The county has yet to do an environmental analysis at the property, but Denny Cherette, the founder of the Cherette Group—a real estate development firm that is representing Chandonnet—said that, according to environmental studies the property owner has ordered, there is no contamination that would bar the county from going ahead with a recreational transformation.

Cherette added that a representative from Westshore Engineering and Surveying, which provides land and scientific consulting, recently reported “the two inland lakes” on the Norton shores property “are cleaner than Lake Michigan.”

“If there is contamination that’s discovered, that would obviously have to be addressed,” Eisenbarth said. “This [MDNR] money can only go to sites that are clean.”

After owning the property for a little more than a century, Nugent Sand ended its mining operations there a couple of years ago and has now put the property up for sale. The purchase price is still being finalized, Eisenbarth said. If the county’s plan to purchase the site moves forward, no general fund dollars would be used to purchase the site; a combination of grant funding, foundation funding, and private donations would likely be used to buy it, county officials said. 

An aerial shot of the Nugent Sand property. Image courtesy of Cherette Group.

The county will also apply for a Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) Trust Fund Grant, which could provide for a portion of the funding. Before the grant can be submitted, the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners will discuss the proposal at its Community Development/Strategic Planning Committee meeting at 3:30 pm on Thursday, Feb. 13. The meeting will be held on the fourth floor of the Hall of Justice building, located at 990 Terrace St. in the city of Muskegon.

Afterwards, a required public hearing will be held on Tuesday, March 3 at 3:30 pm at the county’s Ways and Means Committee meeting at the Hall of Justice. The successful completion of that public hearing would pave the way for Muskegon County to pursue the grant application, which is due by April 1.

Once the grant application is in, MDNR staff would visit the site in the summer and eventually score Muskegon’s application against other projects in the state. County officials expect to find out towards the end of the year if the state will back the Norton shores project. Ultimately, the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners would have to approve the purchase. Should all of that go through, the property would be bought in 2021, Eisenbarth said. Parking and trail signage would be two of the first things at the site; other additions—from the potential campground to kayak launches and more—would be determined through a long-term master plan, the county administrator explained.

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While Cherette called the process “arduous and lengthy” and did not say a sale of the Nugent Sand property to a private developer is off the table, he did emphasize that the owner is interested in working with the county.

“If somehow there could be an offer written today…we would be eager and willing to sign it,” Cherette said, adding that he has “recommended we wait on this.”

“We are putting an incredible amount of faith in the opportunity,” Cherette said, referring to the county’s purchase of the Nugent Sand property.

Private developers have previously broached Chandonnet about the Nugent Sand site; in 2013, for example, there was a proposal to build a $50 million gated residential community on the site. 

“That offer was never really credible,” Cherette said. 

Additionally, Cherette noted that, “we’ve done voluminous financial studies over at least 10 years; this market could not afford million-dollar homes on the inland lake.”

Kathy Evans, the environmental program manager with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, emphasized that public access to natural areas near residential communities result in those homes seeing increases in their property values. She said that kind of property value increase generates more tax revenue for a community than the construction of a few million-dollar homes.

“The community will get more tax revenue because everyone’s property values go up a little,” Evans said.

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing MuskegonTimes@gmail.com or on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.

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