A Maplewood golf course slated for closure has become the latest battleground between conservationists clamoring to preserve green space and county leaders who have it earmarked for redevelopment with an eye toward affordable housing.
Parks advocates are challenging Ramsey County's plans to close and redevelop its Ponds at Battle Creek course, saying it runs afoul of a popular ballot measure that protects parkland.
But county leaders say the golf course is exempt from the 1994 measure — which requires that parkland lost to development be replaced — because when they built it in 2001 on county corrections department property, they exempted it themselves.
The county, which has faced stiff headwinds with nearly all of its recent redevelopment proposals, is pressing ahead with plans at the Maplewood site, hosting a series of community meetings to discuss options including affordable housing.
Parks supporters say they're planning their next move.
"I am not buying that this golf course is exempt," said Scott Ramsay, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Parks and Trails of St. Paul and Ramsey County. "We are trying to hold the county accountable."
The county announced plans to close the 88-acre course in 2019, igniting one of its biggest controversies in recent years. At that time, the course had been losing money and leaders believed it was best to invest in other portions of the county's 6,500-acre parks system. The county owns five golf courses, including the Ponds.
Golfers and residents who lived near the Ponds mobilized to keep the course open, giving impassioned speeches at public hearings and circulating petitions. The course is slated to close this fall. County leaders are also eyeing a second, 77-acre corrections site parcel in Maplewood for development. Friends of the Parks leaders believe the closure defies the will of Ramsey County voters, said board member Richard Arey.
Voters overwhelmingly passed the "No Net Loss" amendment to the county charter in 1994, due to concerns about the closure and redevelopment of the Goodrich Golf Course in Maplewood, Ramsay said. Nearly 85% of votes supported the amendment, he said.
According to the charter amendment, if the county converts a park or green space for another purpose, they must replace it "in an equivalent amount and similar quality."
While the amendment allows for replacement, the Friends group said it is focused on using it to preserve the golf course. Ramsay said his and other environmental groups question county leaders' authority to exempt themselves from the charter.
A naturalist by profession, Ramsay said he questions why the county invested so heavily in the property, including creating natural buffers and landscape to protect water quality and attract wildlife, only to dismantle it now that it's flourishing.
In Maplewood, which controls the property's zoning and will have substantial influence on its redevelopment, Mayor Marylee Abrams has joined the chorus of voices calling for the preservation of the golf course.
Although not a golfer herself, Abrams said the community has testified to the value of the course, which includes a beautiful natural setting and wetlands, opportunities to exercise and youth programs.
She said the course made money last year as many turned to golf as a naturally social-distanced outdoor activity.
"I am committed to making a decision that is best for the city of Maplewood and our residents," Abrams said.
But the county says the record is clear: the Ponds is not technically parkland.
"Before the development of the golf course, the property was never used as park, recreational or open space. The Corrections use of the property was clear and unconditioned when the board took the approach they did in the 2001 resolution," the county said in a statement. "By explicitly affirming that this use of Ramsey County Correctional Facility land was not subject to 'No Net Loss' provision for parkland, they codified that for future clarity."
Ramsay and others in the community say they support the construction of affordable housing, but not at the expense of valuable and cherished community green space.
Meanwhile, county officials continue to fight for redevelopment on multiple fronts, including the former Twin Cities Army Ammunition Plant in Arden Hills, and the shuttered Boys Totem Town and Bethesda Hospital sites in St. Paul.
That frustration was on display at a County Board meeting in March, with Commissioner Jim McDonough unsuccessfully opposing reopening the Ponds for a final season of play this year. McDonough said his constituents on St. Paul's East Side don't benefit from or care about the Ponds and the county needs to stay focused on equity.
"We are more than meeting the needs of golfers in Ramsey County. We are doing more than any city or county in this state," McDonough said, noting the county's five golf courses.
"What I see is the power of white power and privilege, especially when that voice gets organized and loud."
County leadership, in a written statement, said it must balance the needs and wants of all residents, businesses and stakeholders.
"Unlike all other Minnesota counties, Ramsey County has very little agricultural land," the statement said.
"We also have virtually no greenfield property for new development but instead must redevelop for economic growth."
Affordable housing advocates say they support county leaders' efforts to find land and build more homes.
John Slade, an organizer with the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH), said the council is not taking a position on the Ponds redevelopment at this time, but "the affordable housing need in the East Metro is so deep that we welcome any parcel of land that is being considered for affordable housing."
Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037