The city of Duluth took a step toward a proposed sale of municipal golf course lands Monday night. But several citizens registered their displeasure with the prospect of selling off a portion of the city’s two public golf courses.
Nevertheless, the Duluth City Council passed a resolution by an 8-0 vote Monday authorizing city staff to pursue the possible sale of up to 50 acres of land at the Lester Park Golf Course plus another 10 acres of driving-range property at the Enger Park Golf Course. Councilor Jay Fosle was absent from the meeting.
The city seeks to redevelop the properties to provide housing, with at least 20 percent of any new units offered at rates consistent with affordable housing standards.
While the resolution passed Monday opens the door for the city to solicit proposals from would-be developers, any prospective deal would still be subject to extensive review.
Any sale of public golf course lands will need to win the support of at least 75 percent of the Duluth Planning Commission. Such a transaction also would require no fewer than eight of Duluth’s nine sitting city councilors to sign off on the deal.
“That’s a high bar to meet, as it should be,” said At Large Councilor Zack Filipovich.
Dan Baumgartner, president of a group called Friends of Duluth Public Golf, recommended exploring partial development of the courses as an option toward sustaining the city’s municipal golf courses for the long haul.
“This is not a land sale,” he said. “This is merely us making sure we keep all options on the table. Selling public land needs to be done very carefully, and we want to make any final decisions wisely and with broad community support.”
If the golf course properties in question are indeed sold, Lester Park would be downsized from a 27-hole operation to 19-hole course.
Duluth residents have intensely debated the future of municipal golf in recent years, as its two courses have continued to rack up debt, to the combined tune of about $2.4 million earlier this year.
But a number of residents have questioned the wisdom of developing the golf course, suggesting it should remain green space even if golf operations should cease on some or all of the property.
Ryan Jones-Casey, a member of an organization called Keep Lester Park Green, advised city councilors: “Don’t ever forget that you’re meant to be stewards of the resources collectively owned not by city administration but rather every single citizen of Duluth."
Libby Bent, who also is active in the same preservation group, said: “Early citizens had the wisdom to protect fingers of wilderness along all the creeks that drain into Lake Superior. In the case of Lester, the land creates a wildlife corridor and natural buffer to sprawl. It protects the Lester River and offers the potential for creative climate-resilient uses.”
Rich Staffon, president of the Duluth area chapter of the Izaak Walton League, also urged councilors to reconsider any potential sale of park land.
“Disowning our public land should not even be considered until a robust public process has been gone through, where everyone has had the chance to give their input,” he said, calling on the council to table the resolution.
But 1st District Councilor Gary Anderson said a properly designed development actually could increase public access to the golf course property and could provide needed financial resources to reinvest in remaining public golf operations.
Anderson successfully introduced a few amendments to the proposed resolution, stipulating that any development proposals for the property “must be consistent with environmental and sustainability goals described in the city’s adopted comprehensive plan and include public pedestrian, bicycle and trail connections to surrounding public amenities and neighborhoods” and that they “must include an evaluation of traffic impact, public transit access and multimodal transportation options.”
A development that includes affordable housing also could address another pressing need, said 2nd District Councilor Joel Sipress. He noted that about 40 percent of Duluth households live in rental properties and more than half of those households are rent-burdened, meaning that they spend more than one-third of their income on housing.
The resolution passed Monday will open the way for city staff to issue a request for proposals to redevelop the golf course parcels, but Noah Schuchman, Duluth’s chief administrative officer, said no specific timeline has been adopted, and much will depend on the ideas that emerge.