The sale of a 57-year-old golf course near Lake Minnetonka has pitted Orono citizens who want the land undeveloped against a buyer who plans to build high-end homes there.

The controversy has inspired standing-room-only meetings and yard signs in the west metro city over the past two months, leading the Orono City Council to postpone a final decision until mid-January.

At issue is the future of picturesque Lakeview Golf Course, a private business that has been open to the public since 1956.

Its 143 acres are classified as park, recreation and open space in the city's comprehensive plan, but they are zoned as rural residential.

Lakeview's situation is not unlike that of many golf courses losing money because of the recession, competition and golf's falling popularity among young people.

But the controversy has some unusual elements exclusive to a highly affluent area. The homes that would be built on the land would cost $800,000 or more. And opponents are seeking pledges of millions of dollars for their cause.

Citizens got wind of the plan in October and organized Citizens for Lakeview Preservation. 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."

The developer, Source Land Capital, signed a purchase agreement for the property last May and submitted a concept plan last month. It wants to build about 55 high-end homes on parcels that average 2 acres, but needs the city to amend its comprehensive plan to do so.

"We want this 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," said Source Land partner Pat Hiller.

Seller describes losses

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.

"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," Wenkstern said. Lakeview still receives plenty of compliments, he said, 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 said. "We decided as a family reluctantly to let it go."

Johnson said he and other golf course neighbors learned in October about the development plan. They quickly spread the word and began raising money to oppose it, he said, and are seeking pledges to raise $4 million to $6 million to show 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."

Johnson said citizens envision 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.

Big homes, big concerns

Meanwhile, Source Land Capital officials have made it clear that they signed a valid contract to purchase the land. It is not for sale, they said, although they have not closed on the purchase.

Hiller said that he and his partners will provide a first-class project. Homes built on the site are likely to have 4,500 to 6,000 square feet of finished space, he said, and cost "$800,000 and up."

The company held an open house last Thursday evening to answer neighbors' concerns.

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, was 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.

Hiller and others 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.

City Council to decide

Both the citizens and Source Capital are looking to the city for a decision about the future of the land.

Mike Gaffron, Orono's assistant city administrator, said that the property is zoned as rural residential, but that zoning cannot be acted upon 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, he said.

Changes in Orono's plan have been rare, Gaffron said.

He said Orono is obliged by law to consider a developer's request to amend the city's comprehensive plan. "It becomes a legal question, ultimately," he said. "And there are potential legal consequences if the city was to say no."

But citizens question 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 City Council has set a meeting to hear from the developer and citizens on Jan. 6, and it is scheduled to make a final decision on Jan. 13.

Source Capital also has purchased another golf course just down the road from Lakeview, the nine-hole Red Oak Golf Course in Minnetrista, also developed and owned by the Wenkstern family.

That sale closed recently, has not generated opposition and plans are to build about 55 homes on 20 acres.

Both golf courses closed shortly before Thanksgiving.