Death threats darken debate over golf course development proposal
Despite receiving a threatening letter, Eagan council unanimously approves sending guide plan amendment to Met Council
Eagan City Council members received a chilling message this week that darkened the debate over a golf course redevelopment plan.
A handwritten note sent to city hall stated, “Any council members voting for developing Parkview will die. You are in on it with the developer.”
It was signed FOPV, which city officials interpreted to mean Friends of Parkview, a vocal group opposed to plans to turn Parkview Golf Course into housing.
Members of a group, which doesn’t call itself Friends of Parkview, but is often referred to as such, deny being associated with the letter and said they don’t condone threats.
“I’m sorry to see this kind of correspondence,” said Patrick Campbell, a member of the group. “This doesn’t represent us. We prefer a more civil discussion.”
Mayor Mike Maguire read the letter aloud June 19 during a public hearing on a proposal to amend the city’s guide plan, which would change Parkview’s guided land use from private recreation to low-density residential.
Eagan Police are investigating the threat, but declined to speak about it in detail since it is an ongoing investigation.
Anyone with information about the letter or letter writer is urged to call Det. Desiree Schoepfer at (651) 675-5889.
Maguire said the council won’t be swayed by intimidation and urged residents to discuss the matter civilly.
The council unanimously approved submitting a comprehensive guide plan amendment to the Metropolitan Council for review. If approved, the amendment would return to the City Council for a final vote.
Eden Prairie-based real estate developer Hunter Emerson notified city officials in May it hopes to build 173 homes on the 80-acre site.
The developer’s plans for the site at 1310 and 1290 Cliff Road also call for a clubhouse, community gathering space, neighborhood parks and a bike path that would connect the new development to the Fairway Hills neighborhood and Lebanon Hills Regional Park. Home prices would range from $200,000 to $650,000.
Hunter Emerson entered into a purchase agreement last month with the property’s owner, Parkview Golf Associates. The agreement is contingent upon a guide plan change, rezoning and plat approvals that would allow a project to move forward.
Shortly after Parkview Golf Associates purchased the course in 2001, it saw a steady decline in customers and revenue, Parkview co-owner Robert Zaviheim said.
“Parkview is no longer a viable operation,” he said.
Parkview’s annual rounds of golf dropped 25 percent from 50,000 at its peak in 2007 to 37,000 in 2011.
Parkview’s revenue has fallen 17.5 percent in the last four years. The course incurred a loss of $142,211 in 2011.
Zaviheim said he has invested $1 million in the golf course since 2011 with no return.
Parkview isn’t alone in its struggle, said Michael Abee of Paradigm Golf Group, a national golf industry expert.
“We have an oversupply and decline in demand in the industry right now … and Minneapolis is one of the most saturated markets in the nation,” Abee said.
Last year marked the first time more golf courses closed nationwide than opened, with 157 closures, he said.
Parkview Golf Associates looked at other options but felt selling the property to developers was the only viable one, Zaviheim said.
Zaviheim’s comments didn’t sway many of the residents who crowded the Eagan council chambers.
Preserving green space
Several residents urged the city to consider the benefits of an 18-hole golf course.
Mark Wanous, a coach for Eastview High School boys golf, noted that Parkview provides a place for youth camps.
“There’s a niche for Parkview,” Wanous said. “It’s not just about a game of golf, it’s about what it teaches kids.”
Zaviheim noted that demand for youth golf at Parkview has dropped 40 percent, from 500 participants in 2007 to 300 in 2011.
Maguire added that the council doesn’t have the authority to preserve the property as a golf course. Under the existing zoning, Parkview’s owner has the right to change it into a number of things, from a gun range to a campground or nursery, he said.
Some residents suggested the city should purchase the property for a municipal golf course.
Julie Sydell Johnson, director of Eagan Parks and Recreation, said the department has studied the issue and has determined a municipal golf course would not be viable.
Sydell Johnson also noted that a 2008 referendum that would have enabled the city to purchase Carriage Hills golf course for $10.5 million failed.
Others urged Parkview Golf Associates to consider other options or further market the course to potential buyers.
Council members agreed with Zaviheim, who said the association has struggled to find other private buyers in the current market.
“It’s clear that there might be slim opportunity for a white knight to come through and buy the property to preserve it as a golf course,” Council Member Gary Hansen said.
Several residents claimed the agreement between Hunter Emerson and Parkview raised the price, making it difficult for anyone else to bid on.
Other residents, such as Mark Skweres, said they worry Eagan will lose more green space.
“I believe open space is the highest and best use of land. It serves as a buffer between neighborhoods and should be preserved,” Skweres said.
Friends of Eagan Core Greenway also sent the council a letter opposing the guide plan amendment, saying, “We would like to work with the (city of Eagan) and the landowners to explore alternative solutions.”
City Administrator Tom Hedges noted that efforts are being made in the city to preserve green space, including preserving Patrick Eagan Park 11 years ago.
Hedges added that Parkview is not a part of the recognized Eagan Core Greenway.
Kurt Manley, spokesman for Hunter Emerson, promised the developer will preserve some green spaces as parks within the development.
Pointing to the Fairway neighborhood’s history of flooding, Skweres expressed concerns about water quality and flooding.
Eagan Public Works Director Russ Matthys assured the council and residents that water quality issues would be examined prior to a project being approved. He added that phosphorous levels would likely be lower with a residential development than with a golf course, which is permitted to use higher levels of phosphorous in its fertilizers.
Other residents expressed concern that the developer would walk away from a project as some have in other suburbs.
Eagan, unlike some outer-ring suburbs, has not encountered developers who have walked away from a project, said Jon Hohenstein, Eagan’s economic development director.
This is in large part due to the city’s strict rules pertaining to financing, he said.
Hunter Emerson admitted it recently abandoned a project in Prior Lake after its finance company went belly up.
“We had to turn it over to the receiver,” Manley said. “We had no choice in the matter.”
This issue would be avoided in Eagan, which only allows secured banks, not finance companies, to back development projects.
Eagan real estate agent Keith Hittner was the only resident to vocally support the proposal, saying he believes a housing development would boost home prices in the surrounding neighborhoods.
The council concluded redevelopment seems to be the most viable option. Council members also said they fear if they left the property owner without a viable option, the city could face litigation as it did in the Carriage Hills development.
“We can’t favor a public benefit that disproportionately falls on a private property owner,” Maguire said.
In 2004, the council declined to change its guide plan to allow Wensmann Homes to develop the property. The city was subsequently sued by the developer, who claimed it incurred losses as a result of the council’s decision. The case eventually went to Minnesota Supreme Court in 2007, and the city settled with the developer before a ruling could be made.
Though Wensmann intended to redevelop the property, its plans were stalled in 2008 by the recession. Another developer has since started construction on the property.
Maguire urged residents to continue to participate in the discussion with the city and developers as the process moves along.
Skweres said he is disheartened by the council’s decision to send the guide plan amendment proposal to the Met Council.
“This amendment says they don’t value open space as they say,” he said.
Campbell, too, is disappointed in the council’s decision but said he understands it is trying to protect taxpayer funds from potential litigation.
If the Met Council approves the amendment, it will go back to the council for approval. An approval of the guide plan amendment doesn’t guarantee a development can move forward.
Several steps will need to be taken before the developer can break ground. Among other things, the City Council would need to rezone the site as residential and approve detailed plans before the project can move forward.
The Planning Commission voted May 22 to recommend against changing the guide plan for housing.