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Great Lakes Article:

MN DNR Tells City it has suspended work on the golf course conversion. City must fix current violation (Mountain Villas) first, and come back with a conversion request supported by both the Council and the Administration! 

(For an analysis of this development, go HERE)

02/08/2002

Russ Stewart, Councilor Room 330 City Hall 411 West 1st Street Duluth, MN 55802 

Dear Councilor Stewart, 

This is to inform you that the Department of Natural Resources has suspended action on the request for an authorized conversion of the lands associated with the Mountain Villas and the proposed hotel and golf complex. 

At the beginning of this process, I asked my staff to pursue two goals:

1.      Follow the law, rules and guidelines associated with the Land and Water Conservation Fund Program (L&WCF)

2.      Work, within the parameters of the L&WCF program, to address the interests and needs of the City of Duluth as expressed by its elected leaders and city staff. 

The project is obviously a very controversial one for the city and it is no longer clear to the DNR what the interests and needs of the city are. We have received and observed conflicting messages from elected leaders and staff. 

October 23, the City sent a letter to DNR formally requesting conversion on behalf of the City and the Spirit Mountain

Recreation Authority. 

November 16, the City sent a follow-up letter at the mandate of the City Council indicating that the request was limited to the “city administration” and the Authority. 

December 17, the City Council voted to reject a resolution (01-0685R) authorizing the acquisition of the land…authorizing the settlement of compliance issues with the Department of Natural Resources. 

December 19, the City Attorney’s office sent maps and a request to respond to boundaries for the same replacement proposal. 

December 24, the DNR requested clarification of this issue from the city. 

January 25, the Mayor sent a letter requesting that the DNR continue to work with the city. 

January 29, the DNR responded to the request. 

January 30, Councilor Russell Stewart sent a letter stating “…the city council rejected the proposed land swap in no uncertain terms”…resolution 01-0685…”Thus the council has considered the administration’s proposal and has clearly stated that it does not favor this approach.” 

A review of the video from the December 17th City council meeting has revealed the degree of division concerning the proposal among the city’s leaders. While the city asserts that the Mayor, as authorized by the city charter, has a right to pursue proposals, the DNR must assert its right to require that such proposals have the demonstrated support of the city’s elected leaders from both branches. 

In situations like these, it is the DNR’s job to carefully listen to a city’s request and then respond, within the guidelines of the L&WCF. From the very beginning, however, my staff stated that conversion is a complex and time consumptive process. It is never a given that the process will result in authorization from the DNR or the National Park Service. But we indicated that if your city wished to pursue it, we would carefully listen. We have listened and what we have heard is mixed messages. 

The City of Duluth has a current violation at the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area, the Mountain Villas. The DNR is willing to work with the city on this violation but, at this point in time, not in context with the proposed hotel and golf course. 

Please understand that until Duluth City leaders find a way to address the conflicting interests associated with the current proposal that ties the Villas to the proposed hotel and golf course, it is no longer appropriated for the DNR to put staff time into this proposal. I am, therefore, suspending further action on the request until the City of Duluth makes it clear that there is an agreement among city leadership that a conversion request for the Spirit Mountain hotel and golf course development project is the desire of both branches (Mayor and City Council). 

Please contact Joe Kurcinka (651-296-4789) if you have questions or comments concerning this notification. 

Sincerely,

Allen Garber, Commissioner Department of Natural Resources 

c.c. Charles Andresen, Chair, Spirit Mountain Recreation Authority

Rick Certano, Executive Director, Spirit Mountain Recreation Area

ANALYSIS: The DNR has quite correctly recognized that the project must be supported by the entire city government before a conversion request will be considered again. The DNR should not be expected to spend staff time on a "moving target."

The DNR also quite correctly state that the current illegal use (the Mountain Villas) should not be tied to the golf course/hotel conversion request -- they are separate matters. Additionally, it is the correct call that an entity already in violation of federal law should first be required to correct that violation before they are granted the privilege of further conversions.

Finally, Commissioner Garber was quite correct (and clear) about the nature of conversions -- that they are not the "slam dunk" the Administration wishes them to be. The DNR isn’t obligated to help the city find a way around the Land and Water Conservation Fund’s protection clauses. It isn’t supposed to be easy. Those rules are there to insure the public’s investment in public lands remains intact and to keep cronyism from giving the public’s land to special interests.

What does all this mean? It doesn't doom the golf course project, but it does mean that the city must first replace the land compromised by the illegality of the Mountain Villas. This land can not be land the city already owns. This will require time and money. Only after that can the city then request a similar conversion for the hotel complex (which is also illegal under the law). Once THAT conversion request has been made, the DNR and NPS will also have to review all pertinent environmental information, a step during which we hope to prove that this project will cause the environmental problems we have alleged all along, and therefore should not be allowed. It is inconceivable to us that the nation's premier conservation law -- the LWCF -- could be used to cause irreversible environmental harm.

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