The city of Vancouver’s Heights District Plan aims to transform the aging and dilapidated Tower Mall site into a bustling residential and commercial center along the Mill Plain corridor.
But the redevelopment area is bigger than just the mall site, and customers at the Vanco Golf Range across the street from the mall have been raising objections to the planned loss of the facility — the only public driving range in Vancouver.
“The city doesn’t have any golf facilities (on city-owned property) except this one,” says Vanco owner Chuck Milne. “There are very few standalone ranges that have the amenities that we have, like the putting green and chipping green.”
The driving range has been at 703 N. Devine Road since approximately 1970, and Milne, a Vancouver resident and retired professional golfer, has owned and operated the business since 1982.
He’s kept the operation minimalist over the years, employing a staff of up to 10 depending on the season and running the business out of a small shop — although he has added the pair of small putting greens next to the parking lot.
Milne has leased the site from the city in a series of mostly five- to 10-year leases, but the current lease is up at the end of 2020. It includes another five-year renewal option, but only if both parties agree, and Milne says he’s been warned that the city likely won’t grant the extension because of the Tower Mall redevelopment.
Without another extension, Milne says he plans to close the driving range in October or November of 2020, ahead of the winter season when the facility typically sees much lower customer traffic.
“I’m not going to do month-to-month (leasing),” he says. “You can’t run a business that way.”
Milne says he and other staff began notifying customers about the closure, and two of them asked if they could start a petition to ask the city to renew the range’s lease, and post the document by the front desk in the shop. Milne agreed, and the petition took off, gathering more than 750 signatures since it was posted on July 10.
Milne says he doesn’t plan to do anything with the petition yet, but he’s been urging customers who complain about the closure to take their concerns to the city council, and he says eventually he plans to follow suit and try to leverage the petition to make a case for keeping Vanco.
The mostly dirt driving range sits on city-owned property that is technically considered part of the adjacent Park Hill Cemetery, although the range’s portion of the site has never been used for burial purposes. Vanco supporters argue that the site should therefore be subject to the same restrictions as the rest of the cemetery — specifically, a restriction that prevents the site from being permanently redeveloped.
“I’ve been told for years that they can’t put anything on this property,” Milne says.
That’s true of the cemetery overall, according to Vancouver City Attorney Bronson Potter. The city annexed the park in 1914 and dedicated it to cemetery purposes.
But that restriction has already been lifted for the driving range, Potter says; a statutory process allows cities to seek court approval to remove all or part of a cemetery dedication, and Vancouver filed a request last year in Clark County Superior Court for the driving range property to be removed from the designation applied to the rest of the cemetery.
As part of the process, Potter says, the city had to notify the Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, as well as the state’s Funeral and Cemetery Board, and provide proof that no remains had ever been interred on the golf site and that there was sufficient space for future burials in the remainder of the cemetery.
The city was also required to post notices of the court hearing at the site, Potter says, and no objections were received at the time from either the public or the state agencies, so the court granted the removal request.
Legal arguments aside, Milne and the other range supporters argue there’s a strong case to be made for keeping the range; it sees approximately 40,000 visitors per year, ranging in age from high-schoolers to seniors. Three golf pros offer lessons at the range.
“It’s been a part of the community for 50 years,” Milne says. “I have people come in four or five times a week, easily.”