Converting fairways to driveways

Some neighbors are teed off as golf courses close, give way to housing

October 24, 2005|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,SUN STAFF

Marc Norman lives on Golf Island Road in Turf Valley, a Howard County address he was drawn to four years ago by the attraction of living in a community with no less than three golf courses. A casual golfer, his home overlooks the lush 14th fairway of one of the courses.

"That's the sole reason we came here," Norman said as he watched from his backyard deck one sunny afternoon last week as a pair of duffers played through.

But now, 18 of Turf Valley's 54 holes have been closed, and the abandoned tees, greens and fairways appear destined to become driveways, condominiums, shops and offices. The land has been absorbed into a plan for a mixed-use development that could add roughly 1,400 homes around the remaining courses.

Such conversions of golf greens to real estate green is on the upswing.

Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie notwithstanding, golf is in the rough these days, with the number of rounds played in Maryland and nationwide slipping even as developers continue to build new golf courses.

"It's been a very, very difficult industry since 2002," acknowledged Arthur "Lex" Birney Jr., chief executive officer of the Brick Cos., an Edgewater real estate company that also operates four area golf courses. "Golf courses have been struggling, and the game of golf has been struggling."

With open land growing increasingly valuable, some cash-strapped operators of courses are looking to build homes along the fairways - or even, in some cases, to jettison golf altogether in favor of development.

The number of new courses being built still outpaces the closures, but the shutdown rate has been growing since 2001, according to the National Golf Foundation. So far this year, a record 79 courses in the country have gone under.

At least three courses in the Baltimore area have closed in recent years, and homes are already being built on one - the former Bonnie View Country Club, a rolling 140-acre tract in the Mount Washington area where golf had been played since the 1930s. Another longtime private course in Montgomery County is slated for development.

No comparable tally is kept on golf courses that are staying open but adding homes. Country Club of Maryland in Towson is the latest among several area courses seeking to develop a portion of their properties. The 170-acre club recently proposed building 56 duplex houses on a 16-acre tract off one of its fairways.

Larry Schmidt, the club's lawyer, says the member-owned course needs money to upgrade the clubhouse, pay off debt and fix an eroding bank of Herring Run, which threatens to wash away one of the fairways. The development could yield at least $6 million for the club, officials have estimated.

Other course owners have toyed with development - including at least a couple in the Ocean City area, which saw a significant expansion of golf complexes in the past 15 years and markets itself as a golfing destination.

Even Maryland's most prestigious links are not immune from development pressures. Bulle Rock, the Pete Dye-designed course near Havre de Grace that hosted this year's LPGA Championship, canceled plans to build a second course. Now under new ownership, the land set aside for the second course has gone toward building up to 2,000 homes in The Residences at Bulle Rock, set to celebrate its sales opening this weekend.

But such swings from golf to housing are drawing static from some residents upset about the loss of green space in their neighborhood, even if it is privately owned.

"What has happened to Smart Growth?" asked Corinne Borel, who recently bought a home near the Bonnie View Country Club site, where Beazer Homes plans to build 327 single-family homes. She and a few dozen other Mount Washington residents turned out one night last week for a community meeting to voice their unhappiness over the development, which straddles the city-county line.

"This is one of the last few quiet places," she said of her leafy neighborhood. "I'm appalled at how much construction is going on."

Bonnie View, which had operated as a private country club since 1950, closed in recent years after its plans fell through to build a new club in Reisterstown, as did its efforts to merge with other clubs.

Beazer, which purchased the land, already has approval from Baltimore County to build homes on the county portion of the former country club. It still needs clearance to build 52 homes on the nearly 18 acres in the city.

Developers say that building on former golf courses like Bonnie View is actually in the spirit of Smart Growth, the state's anti-sprawl policy that encourages development in and around existing communities.

"It was a struggling golf club," says Edwin "Ned" Howe, vice president of Maryland land development for Beazer Homes. "It's in a highly developed area - the ideal site for redevelopment."

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