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Great Lakes Article:

Councilors reject Spirit Mt. permit

Mayor is expected to veto decision in effort to keep golf course project alive

Duluth News Tribune

Duluth city councilors have tried, for the second time in less than a year, to kill the proposed Spirit Mountain golf course and lodge.

Councilors voted 5-4 late Monday night to reject a work permit for the project, saying federal grant violations blocking the project must be resolved before a work permit can be issued.

"It was pretty much what I expected would happen," said Nancy Nelson, a longtime golf course opponent. "They are saying 'no.' "

Mayor Gary Doty, a strong backer of the project, is expected to veto the council's decision, likely prompting a council effort to override the mayor and reject the permit for good.

George Hovland and Kent Oliver want to lease 272 acres of Spirit Mountain land for a championship 18-hole golf course and lodge between Interstate 35 and the St. Louis River. They have spent six years planning the project, which has survived steady debate and a lawsuit filed by environmental groups opposed to it.

Supporters say the project will boost the struggling Spirit Mountain Recreation Area and improve Duluth's tourism industry.

Opponents say a golf course will ruin Spirit Mountain's lush forest and Stewart Creek, a local trout stream.

The vote came following an afternoon rally outside City Hall in which nearly 100 golf course opponents urged councilors to reject the permit. Sixty-five residents spoke on all sides of the issue at Monday's meeting.

City permit aside, the project is stalled because it violates the federal Land and Water Conservation grants used to create the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area in the early 1970s. The grants require the land be used for public recreation, and the proposed hotel would be private. The privately owned Spirit Mountain villas are already in violation.

Doty's administration is working with the state Department of Natural Resources to craft a solution to the LAWCON violations. Any solution would likely require council approval.

If golf course opponents on the council fail to get the needed six votes to override, the permit is automatically granted Aug. 1 under state law.

The project is one of few developments that won't need government subsidy, said Dale Lewis, president of the Duluth Economic Development Authority and former member of the board that governs Spirit Mountain.

"Not only is it a project not asking for a handout, it will pay cash for the use of the Spirit Mountain land," she said.

This debate was familiar to those steeped in the golf course issue.

Councilors rejected the permit 5-4 late last year for the same reasons, only to have Doty veto the decision. Golf course opponents failed to get six council votes needed to override the veto, putting the permit in limbo ever since.

Members of the American Indian community said Spirit Mountain is a place of prayer and meditation and shouldn't be destroyed for a golf course.

"How much do you want to pave over? How much do you want to pour into our lake?" David Manuel asked at the meeting. "People are getting sick of seeing these kinds of places being developed -- sacred places. We've suffered too long at the hands of greed."

Jim Fetzer, a University of Minnesota Duluth professor, said developers are wrongly trying to profit off public land. "The project is corrupt to its core and should be killed," he said.

Councilors Donny Ness, Greg Gilbert, Russ Stover, Russ Stewart and Herb Bergson voted to reject the permits. Councilors Ken Hogg, Neill Atkins, Jim Stauber and Rob Stenberg wanted to approve the permits, with a condition the LAWCON issues be resolved before construction begin.

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