Development plans for the Carriage Hills golf course have fueled untold hours of public debate in Eagan, stiff opposition from the city and a four-year court battle that went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court.

But when Wensmann Realty, the would-be developer of the golf course, came back to the city Tuesday night with a proposal to build up to 480 homes on the site, the Eagan Planning Commission took less than two hours to sign off on preliminary plans.

But that doesn't mean a single one of those houses will ever be built.

Instead, Eagan voters will decide the fate of the golf course at a referendum in November, part of a contingent legal settlement reached this spring in a dispute that has pitted the city against Wensmann and the golf course's owner.

Many neighbors of the golf course, which closed in 2004, have fought development, arguing that it would destroy valuable green space in the largely built-out city and put too much traffic on area roads.

But Wensmann and Rahn Family Partnership, LLC, the property owner, sued the city after it refused to change its land-use plans to allow new homes on the site. Rahn and Wensmann said that the land is no longer profitable as a golf course and that blocking development would force the landowner to bear the economic burden of maintaining open land that benefits everyone.

The settlement calls for voters to decide whether the city should buy the 120-acre golf course to preserve it or let the land be developed. The city would pay $10 million for the land, plus about $250,000 in bond fees and other expenses, for an average of about $85,400 an acre. That figure does not include any improvements such as trails or public facilities.

In the meantime, Eagan is starting the permit process for Wensmann's plan, a mix of single-family homes, townhouses, senior housing and apartments or condominiums on 90 acres of the golf course, located south of Yankee Doodle Road and west of Wescott Woodlands.

About 30 acres would be set aside as green space.

The city still has the right to approve or deny the proposal, but development won't proceed if the issue passes. If it fails and the city blocks Wensmann's proposal-- or if the city doesn't approve preliminary plans by June 20 -- the case will probably go back to court.

The City Council, which must approve any new homes at Carriage Hills, is slated to consider preliminary plans at its June 3 meeting.

The process will give voters a clear idea of how many and what kinds of houses will be built if the issue fails, the city says. But it also frustrated some Planning Commission members who felt rushed into giving the concept a green light without asking as many questions as they might otherwise.

"I'm not really thrilled with how we got here," said Steven Chavez, one of three planning commissioners who voted against at least one aspect of the approvals requested by Wensmann on Tuesday night.

Many of the 30 or so people who showed up at the meeting voiced their displeasure with development plans that they believe will create traffic woes and, given today's housing market, the "potential for a modern-day ghost town," said resident Robert Acton.

And some neighbors argued that Carriage Hills, where people already walk their dogs, ride bikes and picnic, would be better off as a public golf course, a dog park or even a site for a few wind turbines.

"Because we live right across from the entrance to the golf course, we see right up front how much the property is used," said neighbor Lynn Vinge.

Sarah Lemagie • 952-882-9016