The city of Orono is on the verge of allowing a 57-year-old golf course to be turned into a housing development, despite opposition from hundreds of citizens who want the picturesque area to remain as open space.

Other older golf courses around the Twin Cities have closed and the land has been sold for housing, but residents in the affluent west metro city launched a campaign to preserve Lakeview Golf Course as open land.

However, that attempt suffered a setback earlier this week when the City Council signaled its intent to let the development proceed. Members voted 4-1 to direct city staffers to prepare documents to change Orono’s comprehensive plan.

Mayor Lili McMillan said the problem is that, historically, Lakeview has been zoned as rural residential, but that the city’s comprehensive plan that guides future expectations classified the property as park, recreation and open space.

“We were sending mixed messages,” she said. “We needed to reconcile these two discrepancies.”

McMillan and three council members voted to amend the plan and allow the development to proceed, and she expects the council will repeat that vote and formally adopt the change at its next regular meeting on Monday.

Such a decision will mean that Source Land Capital can proceed with plans to build 55 homes on Lakeview’s 143 acres. The developer signed a purchase agreement for the property in May but has not closed on it, and needs the city to amend its comprehensive plan in order to go ahead with the project.

A citizens’ campaign

The council’s action disappointed neighbors and others who have opposed the project at standing-room-only meetings, including Monday’s special meeting that drew more than 150 people in subzero weather. They organized a nonprofit — Citizens for Lakeview Preservation — and launched a campaign for the city to choose an alternative to development to keep the golf course property open for some type of public use.

The group’s chairman, Bryce Johnson, said that from Dec. 10 to Jan. 3, more than 1,000 people signed petitions asking for the area to remain as open space, and that 325 of them pledged $300,000 to begin the effort.

“We regret that the time allowed by the Orono City Council did not permit us to develop a funded alternative satisfactory to them,” Johnson said.

Many of the neighbors also said that new housing in the area would increase traffic and safety problems, create stormwater runoff that would pollute nearby Forest Lake and Lake Minnetonka, and cause septic and water quality problems.

They are also concerned that the same developer is planning to build 55 homes on 20 acres just down the road from Lakeview at the former Red Oak Golf Course in Minnetrista.

High-end homes

Source Land officials have said the Lakeview development will preserve the natural beauty of the land by protecting its wetlands and other features. Plans call for high-end homes on parcels that average 2 acres and are likely to have 4,500 to 6,000 square feet of finished space, with prices starting at $800,000.

McMillan said the homes on parcels that size will be “compatible with the surrounding neighborhood,” that traffic and stormwater can be managed, and that “low density will not overburden the city’s capacity to provide public safety.” The city has about 7,700 residents.

McMillan also noted that the golf course owner has the right to sell his land and that the city has never formally discussed with him any interest in zoning his property to park land.

Next week’s expected decision to amend the comprehensive plan would give the green light but not guarantee that the development will be built.

The plan amendment must be approved by the Metropolitan Council, a process expected to take about two months. After that, Source Land will have to apply for a preliminary plat and get permits for septic and well sites, among other requirements.

Johnson declined to say whether the group will take further action to oppose the project.

“We’re reflecting on the whole situation,” he said, noting that the development involves many more approvals and opportunities for public comment in the months ahead.

“We don’t have anything specifically planned at this point, but we still have our concerns,” he said.