by Dennis Dalman
To sell or not to sell? At the May 8 Sartell City Council meeting, that was the big question at the most contentious council meeting in recent memory.
The question: Should the council approve the sale of city property to a company called Three Tees LLC? Its chief manager is Brandon Testa, who also owns House of Pizza.
Three council members spoke in favor of that proposal – Tim Elness, Alex Lewandowski, Jill Smith. Two strongly disagreed with it – Jed Meyer and Mayor Ryan Fitzthum.
After an hour of vigorous disagreements, the council voted 4-1 (Smith voting no) to table action on the issue until the May 22 meeting.
In the large audience at the May 8 meeting were former members of Sartell city councils. They wanted to give their input, opposing the land sale.
However, when Mayor Fitzthum asked the council if those in the audience should be allowed to speak, three of the members (Elness, Lewandowski, Smith) said no. To allow that, they said, would violate the council’s policy of not taking input from audience members on issues that do not fall under the rubric of “public hearings.”
Thus, Mayor Fitzthum announced there would be no comments from the audience because a consensus of the council (3-2) said no. The mayor and council member Meyer were very much in favor of opening the meeting to comments, public hearing or not.
During the “Public Forum” section at the opening of the council meeting, former council member Steve Hennes asked if he could read a letter he’d sent to the council. He was told no. So, instead he used his three-minute limit to talk about Sartell needs land for parks and trails, especially with an ever-growing population, and that is one reason he is against the sale of city land.
In 2008, the city bought 160 acres of land from the owner of what was known as the 18-hole Sartell Golf Course on the west side of Pinecone Road. The city paid about $3.5 million for that property. Then the city leased out the southern half of the land to Boulder Ridge Golf Course to develop a 9-hole golf course known as Pine Ridge Golf Course. The owners of Boulder Ridge Golf Course, located in southwest St. Cloud, are Dan Bols and Ted Klein (see related story headlined with “Sartell golf-course operator says he did not request termination”).
For the lease, Boulder Ridge paid $30,000 per year to the city for 15 years. That money has been used for the ice arena in Sartell, the city’s attorney noted at the May 8 council meeting.
If the sale goes as planned, the city will expect Boulder Ridge to work with Three Tees to come up with a leasing agreement. In addition, Three Tees is supposed to add amenities and improvements to the clubhouse, parking lots and irrigation system.
For more background, see story in this newspaper headlined “Opposition rises against proposed city land sale.”
At the May 8 council meeting, Sartell City Attorney Adam Ripple outlined the land-sale proposal. Ripple had been directed by city staff to draft a purchase agreement between Sartell and Three Tees.
Ripple said about a year ago, an appraisal was done on the golf-course property, which determined it was worth about $840,000. The proposed land-sale price in the purchase agreement is $426,000. The city will have to also pay $60,000 as a penalty for terminating the lease with Boulder Ridge.
Some months ago, the city put out a Request for Proposals notice, asking if any developers are interested in purchasing the golf-course from the city. It received four RFPs, and the presenters were invited to present proposals at the Jan. 9 council meeting (one did not show up).
The Sartell Planning Commission had recommended approval of the purchase agreement.
The council held a closed meeting in March to determine details of the proposed land sale.
Ripple said the lease with Boulder Ridge will end Nov. 15 and that Boulder Ridge owners agreed to that. The closing agreement with Three Tees will happen in January 2024. That company would have to make planned improvements to the land so it could operate efficiently as a golf course for the 30-year period. No city money would be used, Ripple said.
The following are summaries of comments and reactions from council members throughout the hour-long meeting:
He said he was disheartened by the lack of public input and by not letting audience members voice their opinions at the meeting.
Meyer said repeatedly that selling the land for that price is tantamount to a “subsidy” given to the buyer. He also questioned the validity of the appraisal done a year ago, saying the land was almost certainly undervalued.
Open-market options for a proposed sale seem to have been ignored or dismissed, Meyer alleged.
He said several times that he, Meyer, is not blaming the buyer for any problems. The problem, he said, is a lack of due diligence and lack of public input.
“We didn’t listen to our community,” he said, adding that a public hearing should be held in the near future.
Meyer called the proposed land sale a poor decision for taxpayers.
“It’s parkland in the center of our city,” he said.
The audience applauded.
“They (Boulder Ridge owners) have run that course for 15 years and never asked us (the city) for help,” Meyer said.
Lewandowski said Pine Ridge Golf Course would likely become a city liability in the coming years, and therefore it’s important to have someone improve the property on that land.
Lewandowski thanked the audience members for showing up but said the meeting is not a public hearing, therefore comments cannot be made from the audience. He noted he had talked with and received emails from residents.
“I am floored by the lack of desire to hear from these people tonight,” said Mayor Ryan Fitzthum as he looked at the council room filled with attendees. Open government is always best, he added.
Residents voted years ago for the regional half-cent sales tax.
“I cannot imagine a single voter who would agree to this deal,” Fitzthum said. “Let’s hear from them.”
Boulder Ridge, he said, has operated that golf course successfully throughout the years.
Fitzthum noted Sartell residents have been steadily sending emails about the proposed land, but some people tried to do that and couldn’t because the city’s email reception was either erratic or not working. One of them was Dan Dols, co-owner of Boulder Ridge, who tried to email and then called Fitzthum about a newsletter on the city website that stated Boulder Ridge operators had asked to cancel their lease. According to Dols, that did not happen. (See related story in today’s newspaper headlined “Sartell golf-course operator says he did not request termination.”)
“The (current) golf course is not a liability,” Fitzthum said forcefully.
In the March 13 closed meeting, Fitzthum and Jed Meyer voted against moving forward with the land sale. The mayor also said the city attorney did not consult with any council members when drafting the purchase agreement.
Jill Smith thanked the audience members for their presence. She said city staff and others have worked very hard for nine months to arrive at a buyer’s agreement. That nine months was plenty of time for residents and others to give their input about the proposal, she added.
The Pine Ridge Golf Course had become a liability to the city with a need to redo the irrigation system and other upkeep costs, Smith said.
“We were stuck with a lease with no ability to manage repairs and so forth on the course,” she said. “And this was the best of the four RFPs.”
Smith objected to the mayor referring to the purchase agreement as a fire sale.
“It is not a fire sale,” she said. “We considered it for nine months and were very open in asking for RFPs.”
The land-sale process was in fact an open process, Elness said.
He called the current golf course a “liability waiting to happen” and noted its need for a new irrigation system and the flooding that has happened on that land.
“We can’t take on a liability now; there’s too much risk,” Elness said.
A new family-friendly golf course would be an asset, he said.
Though he is strongly in favor of the land sale, Elness did make a motion to table the issue until the May 22 meeting so people will know that the council and others acted with the utmost transparency throughout the entire process.
Toward the end of the meeting, Mayor Fitzthum said the following:
“We had passionate debate tonight and I hope none of it was personal. It’s an example of democracy at work. We’re not always going to agree. But we need to be civil and work together as a council, and I think we will.”