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Golf courses make good neighbors, until owners want to sell

  • Article by: ERIC M. HANSON and JENNA ROSS
  • Star Tribune staff writers
  • February 4, 2008 - 7:05 AM

Ron Vannelli and Mike Olson don't know if their Andover property has a future as a golf course. Andover's Planning Commission says the course won't have a future as anything but.

Vannelli and Olson own Woodland Creek Golf Course. But its view is prized by neighbors. And its official status as open space is valued by the city.

So the decision on what to do with the land isn't up to the owners alone -- a source of frustration for Vannelli, who has told the city that the course is not financially successful.

"We've struggled for four years there. We've tried everything," he said.

Nationwide, rising land values and diminished demand are an incentive for golf course owners to sell out. Last year, U.S. golf course closures outpaced openings, according to the National Golf Foundation. The same was true in 2006.

But many golf courses are zoned as open space; thus cities can prevent development of the property. That's sparking battles between course owners and cities around the metro area.

It's happened in Eden Prairie, where a course owner had planned to sell his struggling course to a housing developer for as much as $18 million; in Plymouth, where the city recently removed two courses from restrictive zoning but kept another in it; and in Eagan, where the city denied an owner's request to rezone. That last case is still in court.

In each city, neighbors and residents have leaned on public officials to maintain the space they've counted on for their views, their recreation and their property values.

But Vanelli says, "There's nobody who can tell me that it has to be a golf course. The day you do that -- telling a private business what has to be there and how they have to operate -- I think it's a little out of whack."

Controversy in Andover

In Andover, neighbors who live on or near Woodland Creek crowded a Jan. 22 planning commission meeting to oppose a zoning change request Vannelli and Olson made that potentially would have allowed housing development on a portion of the course.

Jim Nelson is a Woodland Creek neighbor who helped organized the turnout and who lives in a townhome built a few years ago by Vannelli and Olson -- complete with a golf cart garage.

Nelson said the course's owners haven't put enough into promotion and upkeep. Future development will bring more golfers, he argues. And while he doesn't golf, Nelson said he wants the course because the value of his home is partly tied to it.

"People have actually spent money buying their own golf carts on the assumption that it would be a golf course forever," he said.

The Andover City Council is scheduled to consider the zoning change request Wednesday as part of a comprehensive plan update. The planning commission has recommended denying the zoning change.

Course owners say it's unfair to saddle them with an unprofitable business. But they know the odds are against them.

"Let's face it: City councils are very sensitive to the mass of residents rather than the single interest of the golf course owner," said Curt Walker, executive director of the Midwest Golf Course Owners Association. "You've got one voter versus 100."

Richard Singer, consulting director with the National Golf Foundation, said cities typically like to keep open space zoned as open space.

Sometimes, cities acquire the courses and run them as municipal facilities. But most often, he said, "They want to stand by the zoning that exists. Their position typically is: If it was designed as open space, that's pretty much what it is. ... For you to develop on it, you basically have to get the city to approve that. Some are successful, some are not."

What the courts have said

Cities cannot arbitrarily deny a request, Singer said. But sometimes, "arbitrary" ends up being defined by the courts.

In one such case in 2006, the state Supreme Court found for the city of Mendota Heights, reversing an earlier decision that the city's denial of a zoning change was arbitrary.

Left unanswered in that case was a question of whether a city's decision to deny a request might trigger a claim for "inverse condemnation," or "taking of the property," said Tom Grundhoefer, chief legal counsel for the League of Minnesota Cities.

That's an issue in Eagan, where in 2007 the state Supreme Court reaffirmed the city's authority to deny a zoning change but returned the case to District Court to determine whether compensation is warranted. George Hoff, Eagan's attorney in the case, said it's scheduled to be back in court in early summer.

Other cases have involved additional legal complications. In Eden Prairie, for example, the city's decision not to allow development of the Bent Creek Golf Course turned on whether a developer in the 1970s had committed the land to always remain a golf course.

Such a commitment is not reflected on the property's title or in its zoning. But the city unearthed plans for the large development that surrounds the 106-acre course which included references to the course satisfying the development's open-space requirements.

The course's current owner, Sam Hertogs, told the city that when he bought a majority interest in the course in 1985, he searched property records and found no restrictions.

But Eden Prairie in effect blocked redevelopment of the course -- and Hertogs' planned sale.

"Most golf course owners check before they buy; they trace way back," Walker said. "But because they didn't go back to the Magna Carta where some king said no, no, you've got to keep this as a golf course, they're denied their rights."

How courses are zoned

Cities differ on how they designate and zone a golf course. Most classify courses as "open space," which doesn't allow residential development. Many cities are revamping their comprehensive plans, prompting some course owners to seeking less restrictive zoning.

In Plymouth, the three privately held golf courses were zoned under "Public-Semi-Public-Institutional", or P-I -- the same as churches, the Hennepin County Correctional Facility and Wayzata Senior High. In updating its comprehensive plan, the city let two of three courses -- one long closed for business -- out of that designation. The draft plan now allows residential development, as their owners requested.

But the owners of the Hollydale course were denied such a change after dozens of residents rallied to keep the course zoned P-I. Hollydale owners told the city that they plan to keep operating the course.

Said resident Dean Stinchfield: "If the guy wants to sell his golf course, sell it, God bless you. But do it under the plan we've all agreed to. ... It's not the city's job to maximize his profits."

ehanson@startribune.com • 612-673-7517 jross@startribune.com • 612-673-7168

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