Lakeview Golf Course, a picturesque club in Orono, Minn. opened in the 1950s by the CEO of Tonka Toys, was closed in November after being sold to a developer who now wants to build high-end homes on the property. But a citizens’ group has been formed to try to preserve the site for recreational purposes.
The sale of the picturesque 57-year-old golf Lakeview Golf Course near Lake Minnetonka has pitted citizens of Orono, Minn. who want to keep the land undeveloped against a buyer who plans to build high-end homes there, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported.
Over the last two months, the controversy has inspired standing-room-only meetings, billboards and yard signs in the affluent outlying suburb west of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the Star Tribune reported, leading the Orono City Council to postpone a final decision until mid-January.
Lakeview GC is a private business that has been open to the public since 1956, the Star Tribune reported, and its 143 acres are classified as park, recreation and open space in the city’s comprehensive plan, but zoned as “rural residential.”
Lakeview has its roots in Tonka Toys, whose former CEO, Russ Wenkstern, purchased the land in the 1950s and developed it as a golf course. Wenkstern’s son Grant, who has owned and managed the 18-hole course with his wife for decades, said he decided to sell it when Source Land Capital approached him last May, the Star Tribune reported.
After Source Land Capital signed a purchase agreement for the property it submitted a concept plan in December to build about 55 high-end homes on parcels that average two acres, the Star Tribune reported, with the homes costing $800,000 or more. But the city’s comprehensive plan would need to be amended to allow the plan to be approved.
Mike Gaffron, Orono’s Assistant City Administrator, explained to the Star Tribune that while the property is zoned as rural residential, that zoning cannot be implemented unless the comprehensive plan is amended.
Such plans provide guidance for each parcel in a city and what the city’s long-term expectations are for those properties, Gaffron said, and changes in Orono’s plan have been rare.
Orono is obliged by law to consider a developer’s request to amend the city’s comprehensive plan, Gaffron added. “It becomes a legal question, ultimately,” he told the Star Tribune. “And there are potential legal consequences if the city was to say no.”
After getting wind of Source Land’s plan in October, area residents organized Citizens for Lakeview Preservation, the Star Tribune reported. The nonprofit group wants the city to consider alternatives that would keep the area open for recreation.
Bryce Johnson, the organization’s Board Chairman, said that allowing the development would be “breaking a promise to the community” and that “once open land is gone, it’s gone forever.”
Wenkstern justified selling Lakeview, which was closed shortly before Thanksgiving, because “There’s only so much money that you want to keep borrowing and borrowing from your local lender to basically subsidize every round of golf that’s played,” he told the Star Tribune.
Lakeview still receives plenty of compliments, Wenkstern added, but financial losses and its age have taken their toll. “Some of the culverts are caving in, the drainage systems can flood, the irrigation systems are old, the pond needs improvements and the parking lot needs to be replaced,” he told the Star Tribune. “We decided as a family reluctantly to let it go.”
Source Land Capital also bought (and closed) the nine-hole Red Oak Golf Course, down the road from Lakeview in Minnetrista, Minn., from the Wenkstern family, and announced plans to build about 55 homes on 20 acres of that property. That plan has not generated opposition, the Star Tribune reported.
Pat Hiller, a partner with Source Land, told the Star Tribune that the new owner wants Lakeview “to be a development that the surrounding neighbors and the city of Orono can be proud of, in addition to the people who will be living there. ”
He and his partners will provide a “first-class project,” Hiller said, with homes built on the site are likely to have 4,500 to 6,000 square feet of finished space. Source Land has tried to assure neighbors that the development would work with the natural beauty and contours of the land and that wetlands and other features would be protected and enhanced by conservation easements, Hiller added.
Still, the Citizens for Lakeview Preservation group is seeking pledges of millions of dollars to support its cause, the Star Tribune reported.
After learning of the development plan, Johnson told the Star Tribune, the group began efforts to raise between $4 million to $6 million, to help show Orono City Council members that there may other ways to manage the land.
“We’re not specifically taking issue with the detail of this developer’s plans,” Johnson said, “but we have a better alternative.”
The citizens’ group envisions a future for the land that could offer a park with trails, natural habitat and an interpretive center, or perhaps an updated nine-hole golf course combined with a park, Johnson said.
Source Land Capital held an open house on the evening of December 26 to try to answer neighbors’ concerns, the Star Tribune reported.
At the meeting, Donna Hager, who has lived along the southern edge of the course for 53 years, said she fears that septics from the development will leak and contaminate her private well and that runoff from the streets, roofs and roads will pollute nearby Forest Lake and Lake Minnetonka.
Mary Sladek, who also lives nearby, expressed concerned about safety from increased traffic on the nearby roads, and said Orono would be better off leaving the land as open space where residents and future generations could hike, bike, ski and enjoy nature.
The citizens’ group questions why the city cannot use its authority to refuse or at least to slow down the process to explore, whether there are alternative uses for the land.
“Orono has a history of taking its time on everything, and I don’t understand why this is moving so fast without enough questions being asked,” said Robyn Johnson, another golf course neighbor.
The Orono City Council has set a meeting to hear from the developer and citizens on January 6, and is scheduled to make a final decision on Jan. 13, the Star Tribune reported.