Whose Summer Home Is It?

By: Karen E. Vigmostad (Michigan State U.): Pat Bytnar (U. Tenn), Cathy Cavaletto (U. Hawaii), Lee Hardman (U. Minnesota), Carl Mitcham (Penn State U.), Scott Morris (U. Illinois). Based on initial writings by Karen Vigmostad (Michigan State U.), at the 1997 MSU Bioethics Institute

summerhome gifBackground

A developer watches his foreman park a bulldozer on a sand dune stretched a hundred feet above the Great Lakes shoreline. He is planning to build a magnificent 3,000 square foot summer home for Mr. and Mrs. Jones. The house will overlook the large expanse of blue water. The Jones live in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and have told the developer how much they look forward to flying up to the island for long weekends. The developer knows the Jones work very hard and this is to be their summer home. The developer looks over the expanse of the water and feels satisfied. He knows he is making a living, indeed a very good living, and is building a fine home. His grandfather and father were both developers, and by age eight he was following them around and learning the business. He is proud to be a developer and to carry on his family's tradition. He's not afraid to fight for what he thinks is right, and he believes there is nothing better for America than increasing economic wealth of the nation by building homes and commercial developments.

The developer watches as his foreman surveys the big patch of weeds they will remove to make room for the red pines. The developer wants to plant the several hundred red pines sitting there in burlap bags waiting for the decision by the commissioners. He likes red pines because they grow quickly and are inexpensive so he can plant many of them. He thinks the pines will look nice and protect the house from the harsh winds blowing across the lake. Recently the developer brought additional deer onto the island, careful to bring only males so as not to increase their numbers. Besides, hunters prefer to shoot bucks. He and the Joneses look forward to seeing the deer all summer and then Mr. Jones will hunt them right in his backyard come November 15th. The developer feels great and can't wait to meet with the Commissioners. He feels confident that they will give him a variance so he can start building summer homes on this fabulous island. He's already talked to Commissioners Bill and Joe at the athletic club and things seem "greased."

An ecologist comes to the island and sees the bulldozer poised to cut into the edge of the ancient sand dune. She is alarmed, shaken. She can see that he will cut into one of the last two stretches of undisturbed sand dunes on Michigan's Great Lakes islands. She can also see that the bulldozer will pull up huge amounts of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) growing in dry fields near the dune edge. She thinks about the milkweed which is food for bees, flies, and monarch butterflies. These insects in turn cross-pollinate the milkweed and keep it regenerating. She is alarmed because she fears that this year when the monarchs arrive on the developer's island in May from Mexico, the milkweeds will be gone. They will fly all over the island trying to find their food. They will be weak from the long travel and vulnerable to death. They will have flown over open water and been battered by the wind arriving in a weak condition. This is the only summer home they have ever known, and won't last long without the milkweeds.

The ecologist sees several hundred red pines sitting near the bulldozer. She knows red pines aren't native to this island. They also don't provide shelter to any of the creatures living on this island which have slowly adapted over a ten-thousand year period to the deciduous trees of the coastal dunes. She envisions hundreds of red pines with no life in them. Then the ecologist spots an antlered white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginiana) and her heart sinks. She has been on other islands that have been damaged by these magnificent creatures. She knows that deer are not naturally found on Great Lakes islands because of the difficulty of crossing ice and lack of suitable food once there. Most Great Lake islands are just too small to maintain healthy deer populations. Without natural predators, the deer herd grows too large in numbers and eats everything in sight. If their own usual food source-twigs and leaves of aspen, nuts, yellow water lily and acorns-is missing, deer will eat whatever vegetation is available, often stripping bare the lower branches of trees and shrubs. Even in small numbers, she has seen the damage caused by the pointed, sharp deer hooves that cut two by three inch tracks deep into the earth, severing the vegetation. In a sand dune environment, this can lead to severing key botanical connections for decades. The ecologist sees things in the developers plans that she believes will destroy some of the very things that drew the developer and the Jones to the island. When she looks over the horizon, she sees an interconnected chain of life and life processes that started for this island 14,000 years ago when the last glaciers left this area. She hopes she can convince the Commissioners not to issue the variance. She's never met them and hopes they are fair and will listen to the island's story.

The Deliberation

The State Natural Resources Commission must decide whether to issue a variance to the Sand Dune Protection Act, which prohibits building close to the edge of dune areas. This particular island, which is 3 miles long and half a mile wide, has a rare perched dune along the entire western coast, and the island is also on the state list as the eighth most endangered island ecosystem out of 600 state islands although there are no laws that address this aspect. The north half of the island is owned by the state, and the south half by the developer. Several dune plants are listed as endangered or threatened species. In addition to permanent residents, the island is home for migratory species such as warblers and the Monarch butterfly. The island contains a sandy area used by the public for landing boats for picnics, deer hunting, or simply enjoying nature. A limited number of deer hunting permits are issued by lottery each year by the Commission to keep the deer population, which was introduced to the island in the 1960s, in check. Hunters land by helicopter at a cost of several thousand dollars for a wilderness hunting experience. There is one homestead on the island currently, as well as an airstrip for small planes. In the past, the island has supported a somewhat larger population of people engaged in farming, lumbering, or use of the island as summer homes. The Commission previously denied a variance to the Sand Dune Protection Act to a different developer who wanted to build several hundred condominiums on the island. The previous developer then sold his island property to the current developer. The nine commissioners are appointed by the Governor with the advice and consent of the State Senate. In past votes, four of the Commissioners have tended to take pro-development positions, while four have tended to be more protectionist. Traditionally an all-male commission made up of hunters and outdoor types, these eight men have now been joined by a new member, a woman, who has not yet established a voting record.

Issue to be discussed: Should the developer be allowed to build the house?

Some other factors to consider:

Air pollution, noise, energy consumption, and waste disposal will increase by building, maintaining, and traveling to a new house.

Class Activity


a. Identify pertinent ethical issues.
b. Evaluate competing ethical positions.

Split the class into three groups: Developers, Protectionists and nine Natural Resource Commissioners.

Stage One (Groups meet separately) Protectionists & Developers have to identify the ethical basis for their respective positions, then develop the best ethical arguments to present to the commission as well as anticipate arguments from the other group, and develop responses.

Commissioners must identify the relevant ethical principles and responsibilities as public officials to be used in making this decision. They should also consider any potential conflicts of interest. Half should be instructed initially to lean towards the development and half to lean against it.

Stage Two (Groups meet together as a whole in an open, public meeting):

Developers and Protectionists briefly present their cases to the Commissioners.

Then there is an open question-and-answer period led by the Commissioners.

The Commissioners leave the room to work to reach a consensus on whether or not to grant the variance to the Act. They are instructed at this point to make the best collective decision possible.

Finally, the Commissioners return and present their decision to the two groups. They must explain what arguments and reasoning prevailed, and why.

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Last Update 06/06/03