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Duluth City Council backs sale of golf course land

The view from the putting green of the number two hole on the Lake Nine at the Lester Park Golf Course in Duluth. (2017 file / News Tribune)

The Duluth City Council has taken the first steps toward forging ahead with a city administration plan to sell 50 acres of land at Lester Park Golf Course and another 10 acres of land that's now home to the driving range at Enger Park Golf Course.

But a number of residents showed up Monday night to make it clear that not everyone is onboard with the idea.

Of the nine speakers who offered public testimony, all but one was critical of the proposed sale.

Rich Staffon, a representative of the Duluth chapter of the Izaak Walton League, said the proposal to sell 60 acres of parkland "is really no small thing."

"Not only will we lose access to a large area of public land, but there will also be a substantial environmental impact if we replace this green space with dense housing. We're especially concerned about its close proximity to the Lester River and pollution from warm-water runoff and sediment to this cold-water trout stream," he said.

If the city's vision becomes reality, it could lead to the development of 520 units of multi-family housing — 400 units at Lester Park and another 120 units at Enger.

Ryan Jones-Casey urged councilors to slow down the process and noted that the latest proposal for Lester Park Golf was presented to citizens for the first time just five days ago at a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting.

"Any notion that this proposal has been informed by a broad cross-section of the general public is at best disingenuous," he said.

"Please remember that you do not represent the administration or housing developers that have their eyes on our citizen-owned public parkland. You represent every single citizen of Duluth. Please oppose this proposal until a transparent public process has been laid out for all to see," Jones-Casey implored.

To protect green space, city administration proposes to purchase about 450 acres of tax-forfeited land adjacent to Lester Park and another 20 acres of tax-forfeited property next to Enger Park. The land in question is undeveloped at present, but much of it is zoned for low-density residential use, currently leaving the door open to future development. The city pledges to formally designate the property as parkland, protecting it as green space, if its acquisition efforts prove successful.

Councilor Gary Anderson stressed that Monday marked just the first of many steps to come.

"We are not setting anything in stone tonight," he said.

But Councilor Joel Sipress said the council was being asked to provide clear direction.

"We are voting to endorse a plan, and I think we need to be very clear that by voting for this — while we may not be voting for a land sale — we are voting to begin a process whose intended result is a land sale," he said.

On Monday, the council voted 7-0 to amend the city's future land-use plan, setting the stage for a likely future zoning change to allow for development of the proposed parcels. A minimum two-thirds vote threshold was required to modify the plan.

Besides amending the land-use plan, councilors also voted 7-0 for a resolution indicating their support of city plans to downsize the Lester Park Golf from 27 to 18 holes, selling off the Lake Nine portion of the course for development. The proceeds from the sale of that property would then be plowed into improvements at the Enger Park Golf Course.

But any sale of golf course property — which is designated as public parkland — would need to win the support of eight of Duluth's nine sitting City Council members.

Under the proposal, Lester Park Golf Course would continue as an 18-hole operation at least through 2022. At that time, however, the city will need to decide if the course can be made to operate in a viable self-sustaining fashion.

Duluth's two municipal golf courses have run consistently in the red for some time now, and They've racked up about $2.4 million in debt, to date. As part of the plan to shore up the golf fund's finances, city administration has offered to write off half that debt going forward.

Peter Passi

Peter Passi covers Duluth city government and community issues. A graduate of Carleton College, he has worked as a reporter for more than 30 years and joined the Duluth News Tribune newsroom in 2000.

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