Opponents much alike, but divided over Par 3
Leaders on each side of course issue hope to persuade voters
March 4, 2007
Robin Ehrlich and Robert Bonine are longtime Mendota Heights residents who have some things in common. Both are golfers who describe themselves as politically left of center but without any ambition to run for office.
They are civic-minded and have broad interests. They admit the question of whether their city should buy a golf course is hardly the most pressing issue around and might, in fact, rank at the bottom of many people's priorities.
But Ehrlich and Bonine are, nonetheless, leading opposite sides of the debate over the future of the private Mendota Heights Par 3 Golf Course.
Ehrlich, 55, is co-chair with Sally Lorberbaum of the Save Par 3 Committee, whose volunteers want voters to approve municipal purchase of the course for $2.8 million.
Bonine, 66, is heading up the Vote No Par 3 4/24/2007 Committee, whose volunteers want the city's 4,500 voters to reject buying the course in an April 24 referendum.
Their paths never crossed before the public debate started to percolate over the golf course referendum.
"I'm not really that much of an activist," said Ehrlich, a computer programmer. "I've done things with the (Democratic-Farmer-Labor) Party, but no one would call me an activist by any means."
Ehrlich is married and his three children are grown and out of the house.
"I have a lot of time on my hands," he said. "No more soccer meets, swim meets; no more helping with homework."
His house abuts the golf course on 1695 Dodd Road, and the self-described duffer plays there on occasion.
He believes preserving green space is important and the golf course is an asset worth the price. He also thinks the city will run the business well.
If the measure fails, the course's private owners plan to sell the 17 acres to developers who will build 19 houses on the property.
"Sometimes you just get involved with something and feel you should follow through to the logical conclusion," Ehrlich said. "If it turns into houses, it turns into houses. I'm not going to move or anything."
Ehrlich acknowledges the opponents' philosophical arguments but said they are reaching the wrong conclusions.
"We are asking citizens to subsidize people who are playing golf," Ehrlich said. "We think that helps everyone's way of life in Mendota Heights. Having a golf course helps everybody's property values increase. If you don't have amenities in cities, everybody's real estate won't appreciate as nicely."
The money needed to buy the course will raise property taxes annually for 15 years by $29 on a $200,000 house and up to $93 on a $650,000 house.
"If you cannot afford $50 or $80, depending on the price of your house, vote against it," Ehrlich said. "You can't argue that point. Mendota Heights property taxes are some of the lowest in the Twin Cities area. You could argue we can raise taxes without too much ill-effect."
Bonine, a retired insurance and investment agent, is marshaling opponents and making counterarguments.
Cost is high among them. Bonine would rather see 19 homes built there. If the houses built are all worth $1 million, the city has estimated that $157,000 annually in property taxes would be generated.
Bonine also thinks the course isn't worth the asking price.
"One of the reasons why Mendota Heights has remained a low-tax city is because previous councils have been prudent," Bonine said. "This current council has been imprudent. As a matter of value, why pay $3.9 million, principal and interest, for something that doesn't have that kind of value?"
Others question the city's ability to run a golf course. Still others say a course is not a nature preserve, so keeping it is not really preserving green space.
Bonine, who served on the local school board from 1969 to 1975, was chosen Feb. 22 to lead the opposition at a meeting at city hall that attracted 40 residents. Similar numbers have turned out for earlier gatherings in favor of buying the golf course.
Soon after Bonine was chosen as leader, one resident asked him to run for mayor in the next election. No chance, Bonine said. His service on the District 197 school board, he said, permanently killed any taste he has for elective office.
"I'm an issue guy and this is my issue," Bonine said.
At least locally, that is. "All my issues are national, except for this Par 3 thing: how to fund Social Security, universal health care." With a son who is an Army officer serving in Iraq, Bonine also is plenty revved up about the war.
"I can't tell you in clean language how opposed I am to the war. I can't believe what we've done," Bonine said. "Given our Vietnam War experience, I am shocked America is doing what it's doing. It's a tragedy for all."
Bonine, who is married, plays golf at the private Somerset Country Club, also on Dodd Road.
Bonine said his opposition also stems from a growing distaste with taxpayers being forced to subsidize private businesses or personal hobbies, such as golf, that have no universal benefit.
"People want their pleasures subsidized by taxpayers," Bonine said. "We see that in the football stadiums and baseball stadiums, and I ran across that sentiment going door to door. People say, 'I want to support the referendum because it's cheap golf.' Look, it's cheap golf because the rest of us are paying your green fees. Whether it's roads or schools, people don't want to pay their fair share."
Both sides in the debate are mapping out strategies and collecting money for a campaign that's likely to be waged door to door and neighborhood by neighborhood.
The opponents have a Web site, www.votenopar3.com, while supporters are referring people to the city's Web site, www.mendota-heights.com, which has answers to frequently asked questions about the issue. Officially, the city is required to maintain neutrality on the referendum, but Mayor John Huber and other elected officials support the purchase.
For both sides, the big push with voters won't come until April.
Bonine doesn't see much point in campaigning before then. He and his wife, Kathy, will spend most of the month in San Diego.
Ehrlich is encouraging Bonine to stay longer.
"We're hoping he's gone through April also," he joked.
Brian Bonner can be reached at email@example.com or 651-228-2173.