Friends of the Eagan Core Greenway

Golf Course in Limbo

Future of Mendota Heights' Par 3 Course Uncertain

St. Paul Pioneer Press
Wednesday, May 4, 2005

by Brian Bonner

It is not good for business when people think you are no longer in business.

David Bergen knows that well. He is the manager of the Mendota Heights Par 3 Golf Course, which some people mistakenly believe is closed because it has been the focus of a long-running legal dispute with the city of Mendota Heights.

The issue is whether the 18-acre golf course in the St. Paul suburb can be sold for housing. The case will be heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court at 10 a.m. today.

The ruling, perhaps months away, might have broader implications by more explicitly defining the powers that city governments can wield in regulating land use.

Similar disputes over golf courses have broken out in the metropolitan area, driven by economic conditions that lately favor the use of land for housing over golf.

In Eagan, for instance, Dakota County District Judge Patrice Sutherland recently dealt a blow to that city's efforts to block the sale of the 120-acre Carriage Hills Golf Course for housing.

The judge ordered Eagan to either amend the property's land-use designation to allow for housing or begin eminent domain proceedings to take the course. The City Council is considering an appeal.

In Mendota Heights, Par 3 Golf Course owners Michael Cashill and Alan Spaulding have been trying to sell to a housing developer willing to pay $2.35 million for the property.

The city of Mendota Heights, meanwhile, has been vigorously trying to stop the sale.

Under the city's comprehensive plan, Mayor John Huber and other officials argue that the land is designated as a golf course.

They have said the long-standing designation reflects public opinion and their desire to preserve open space.

Course owners, supported by two lower court rulings, argue that the city's own zoning ordinance permits single-family residential housing development on the parcel in question.

A three-judge panel of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, in support of a ruling by District Judge Thomas R. Lacy, cited the inconsistency between the city's comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.

The judges ordered the city to bring the comprehensive plan in line with the zoning ordinance, a step that would pave the way for sale of the land and construction of housing.

But the city's lawyers dispute the rulings.

They contend that the Legislature, in adopting the Minnesota Land Use Planning Act of 1995, gave overriding power to a municipality's comprehensive plan when it conflicts with zoning ordinances.

Broader issues are at stake as well, said Minneapolis attorney Clifford M. Greene, part of the legal team for the city of Mendota Heights.

"In a nutshell, this case is about the propriety of a judicial order that deprives the elected officials of their responsibility to engage in comprehensive planning process," Greene said.

"If individuals can persuade judges to engage in piecemeal amending of a comprehensive plan," Greene said, then such planning -- designed to ensure that land is developed in the community's best interests -- loses its meaning.

Whatever the merits of the Mendota Heights lawsuit, the dispute has not been good for business at 1695 Dodd Road.

Minnesota Golfer magazine's current issue rates the best par 3 golf courses in the metro area. At the end, "they said we were no longer in existence," Bergen said.

The unfortunate publicity has had an effect. Corporate and bar leagues -- important clientele -- have been calling to say they heard the course was out of business.

Bergen said the golf course will stay open for the entire season, regardless of the lawsuit's outcome. If the owners lose their case, "we may be there forever," Bergen said. "Don't give up on us."

Bergen is part of a new management team that has made changes designed to make the course easier to play.

The grass in the roughs is shorter, Bergen said, and people can reserve tee times on the weekends.

S. Todd Rapp, the Eagan attorney representing course owners, is surprised that the issue has reached the high court.

"I don't think it raises novel issues, nor does it have the requisite statewide importance that ordinarily justifies Supreme Court review," Rapp said. "But the Supreme Court thinks otherwise."

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