In a stunning reversal, the Eagan City Council decided Tuesday night to renew its fight against a developer who wants to convert the Carriage Hills golf course into a subdivision.
Bolstered by a Minnesota Supreme Court ruling last week that supported nearby Mendota Heights in a similar golf course controversy, the council is now pressing forward with its appeal of Wensmann Realty Inc.'s lawsuit and abandoning the settlement it agreed to in November.
"We as a council have been in the very difficult position of trying to balance our desire to defend the city's comprehensive guide plan with wanting to ensure the best outcome for residents living near Carriage Hills, as well as the city as a whole," Eagan Mayor Pat Geagan told those who filled the chambers for Tuesday's council meeting. "The City Council now has reason to view a possible outcome of our appeal differently than we did one month ago."
Residents applauded and neighbors - many wearing the same shocked expressions - hugged each other after the council's 5-0 vote. For months they had accused the council of caving to a developer with deep pockets and had pleaded with the city to rethink its settlement.
"After the last meeting, I had given up hope," said JoAnne Geister as she wiped away tears. "It took a lot of guts for them to do this."
Course owner Ray Rahn and developer Terry Wensmann could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
The city's advisory planning commission in December voted 4-3 to approve Wensmann's plan to build a 480-unit housing development on the property while preserving 30 acres as an executive nine-hole public course. The council was scheduled to vote on the development application - which amended the city's guide plan - Tuesday. Had they approved the plan, the lawsuit would have been dropped.
"We're thrilled. At least now we have a chance in the courts," said Rachel Thorpe Newman, a founding member of the neighborhood's Carriage Hills Coalition, which has rallied against the course's development for years.
"We have to go the distance," Council Member Cyndee Fields said.
The 120-acre course, located off Yankee Doodle Road on Wescott Woodlands Drive, is one of the last private green spaces in the otherwise built-up suburb. Eagan had fought its redevelopment since August 2004, when the council denied Wensmann's plan to rezone the 40-year-old public course.
The city's comprehensive plan - essentially its blueprint for development - long has called for the property to be zoned only for parks and recreation. After the city refused the zoning changes, the owner and developer sued in district court.
Rahn closed the course in the spring and said he wanted to sell the golf course, which he bought in 1996, because it was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually.
In April, District Judge Patrice Sutherland sided against Eagan and ordered the city to either amend its comprehensive plan and the property's zoning or begin eminent domain proceedings to buy the 18-hole course. Sutherland ruled that the city's denial of development amounted to taking the course without paying for it.
The city took the case before the Minnesota Court of Appeals in May, arguing that it must protect the integrity of its comprehensive land-use plan.
But the city changed course in November after leaders decided it was not worth the risk to continue with their appeal. Council members worried that losing on appeal could set a binding precedent for a loss of local control over zoning and, instead, chose to make a compromise settlement.
But Council Member Peggy Carlson said Tuesday she was more worried about another type of precedent: the trend of local golf courses being transformed into developments. She said Parkview Golf Club's owners on Friday applied for a zoning change to create a subdivision and nine-hole course on the property.
"That pushed me over the edge," she said. "It was bad form and bad timing. I'm ready to dig my heels in now and go the distance."
She and others also noted the Mendota Heights case, in which the state's highest court ruled last week that the city didn't have to convert a 17-acre golf course's zoning to residential because that city's comprehensive plan designated it a golf course.
Council Member Mike Maguire compared the decision to go forward to a high-stakes game of poker.
"Last week, we were dealt a real power card by the Supreme Court," he said. "(The council and the neighbors) are all pushing their chips in together. I just hope we win."