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The Cottage Grove City Council late Wednesday approved a 377-unit housing development near the Mississippi River on the site of a shuttered golf course, the latest decision for a scenic riverfront parcel that's been the subject of four years of public debate.

Public opposition to the project remains high; the council heard nearly an hour of criticism of St. Michael-based Rachel Development's plan before approving it. The council's unanimous decision to proceed was what was required by law, according to the city attorney, who said the developer met every requirement.

"Legally there's no question that we should approve this development," said City Council Member Justin Olsen shortly before the vote.

Some of those opposed included associate extension professor Elaine Evans of the University of Minnesota, who said in a letter that the project threatens the local populations of the federally protected rusty-patched bumble bee. The bees hibernate below ground from fall to spring and would be wiped out; the site is in an area that has been identified by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as likely bee habitat, Evans wrote. Others cited archeological concerns due to the spot's history as a known Dakota settlement.

The project calls for three types of housing, from townhomes to custom homes, with some 3 miles of sidewalks and trails.

The land first became available when the Mississippi Dunes golf course shut down in 2017. A private owner, David Gustafson, bought the 200-acre parcel as an investment and has since made several deals to divvy up the property. A city park will take up about 29 acres along the river and the state Department of Natural Resources hopes to close on two deals by June that would see about 47 acres preserved and added to an adjacent state-run Scientific and Natural Area.

A separate deal for a private developer, Pulte, to build homes on the golf course land fell apart in 2022 when it pulled out citing market conditions. The project had drawn opposition, including a lawsuit filed by a group called Friends of Grey Cloud that sought to force the city to do a more thorough environmental review at the site because of its proximity to the river and the Grey Cloud Dunes SNA. The suit was dismissed on a technicality due to when it was filed.

Rachel Development put the 123.7-acre site under contract in March 2023. Paul Robinson, the development director for Rachel, said the homes would range in cost from low $400,000s to the high $700,000s.

During the public comment portion of Wednesday's meeting, people were invited to step forward to speak for up to two minutes, and it took nearly an hour to hear from everyone. Lisa Mueller of Friends of Grey Cloud said the group has a petition with 1,200 signatures to stop the project. She said Rachel's development plans should have triggered a new environmental review, and the developer should not have been allowed to use the environmental review that was done for Pulte.

"Rachel's project isn't a change to an existing project, but a completely new one," she said.

City staff responded that the state DNR and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reviewed the project and didn't find cause for concern.

Cottage Grove Mayor Myron Bailey, reading from a prepared statement, said the council has long debated about what to do with the site. Some of the early pitches came from the organizers of the Renaissance Festival or WE Fest, a three-day country music festival. Those ideas weren't seriously considered, he said, but even the first developer who pitched building houses was rejected because the project went right up to the riverfront.

"I said no because it didn't have public access to the river," he said. "We have been consistent with our vision for the land and stood our ground to ensure the public access for all abilities to the river is achieved and there's a balance between life-cycle housing and open space."