Ramsey County has asked developers for ideas how to remake a golf course and a vacant parcel in Maplewood, a move that has frustrated the suburb's mayor and environmental groups who say county leaders should wait for the results of a pending natural resources survey.
The county has issued two requests for developers to submit 25-page plans outlining their suggestions for the county-owned sites by Oct. 4, calling it "a prime development opportunity." According to a timeline attached to the requests, the county wants to interview developers in November and negotiate a sale of the properties by the end of the year.
The properties are the 88-acre Ponds at Battle Creek golf course that will permanently close Sept. 12, and a 77-acre lot bordering the county workhouse and Battle Creek Regional Park. The latter site has become a nesting ground for grassland birds, including the Henslow's sparrow, which is on the state's endangered species list.
"I think it very clearly signals they are planning to develop the property," said Colleen O'Connor Toberman, river corridor program director with Friends of the Mississippi River. "It feels likes they have made a decision without having all the information."
Her group and others, including the St. Paul Audubon Society and the Legacy of Nature Alliance are lobbying to save the vacant site used by grassland birds from redevelopment.
The county hired an outside firm, Midwest Natural Resources, to complete natural resource studies at both properties.
That report will be presented to county leaders sometime this year. However, avian biologists completing the survey have posted preliminary reports on eBird, an online bird observation database, and identified more than three dozen birds species on the vacant parcel, including the Henslow's sparrow.
Jean Krueger, the county property management director, said issuing the requests for developer interest is a typical step in a development process and does not obligate the county to do anything more than review their options.
"It's testing the waters with the development and business community and seeing what interest there is in the sites," Krueger said.
Krueger said timing is critical if there's a potential buyer interested in running the golf course as a private operation because the county will be reducing maintenance of the course once it closes. County leaders have also expressed interest in mixed-use developments and affordable housing.
Krueger said the county is interested in "divesting" from the properties but will have some influence about what ultimately goes there.
Despite pleas from the St. Paul Audubon Society and the Friends of the Mississippi River to preserve the vacant lot for threatened grassland birds, Krueger said the county is not considering it for parkland.
Maplewood Mayor Marylee Abrams said the county's decision to reach out to developers was premature.
"The timing didn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to me," Abrams said. "These are two beautiful pieces of land in Maplewood. The ecology report is an important piece of the puzzle. That report isn't even in."
Abrams, who has said she would like to see Ponds at Battle Creek remain a golf course, said she worries county leaders haven't thoroughly considered feedback from residents.
And she said nothing can happen to either property until the city agrees to rezone it. "We are the zoning authority," she said.
Krueger said the natural resources study and community engagement will be taken into consideration but doesn't preclude some development.
The county has also faced opposition about redevelopment of the golf course.
Golf enthusiasts have lobbied to keep it open, and the nonprofit Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County has argued the course should be preserved under a 1994 county charter amendment that requires parkland lost to development be replaced.
County leaders say the golf course, built on county corrections property in 2001, is exempt from the 1994 amendment.
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037