It’s been more than three years since the last round was recorded at Ocean Meadows Golf Club in Goleta, California. Birdies, no. But there are birds galore.
Whistles of white-tailed kites, the chirps of snowy plovers and the warbles of tree swallows still can be heard in southern Santa Barbara County.
That’s because the 64-acre, nine-hole course, purchased for $7 million by The Trust for Public Land, is being transformed into a nature preserve. Environmentalists at the University of California Santa Barbara and the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County have joined forces to restore an intermittent tidal estuary into a functional and educational wetland, and create a protective oasis for endangered species such as the tidewater goby, a small fish that lives in coastal lagoons, estuaries, and marshes, and the Belding Savannah Sparrow.
Groundbreaking is expected in February 2017. When the project is completed it will become part of 228 acres of conserved habitat on the university’s campus, which abuts the tract.
“We’ve tried to create a real mosaic with a lot of niches of freshwater wetlands to support a wide diversity of birds,” said Lisa Stratton, the director of ecosystem management for UCSB’s Cheadle Center for Biodiversity and Restoration.
At least half a dozen courses across the country are being converted to nature preserves or parks. With no shortage of places to play golf, converting beautiful fairways to public green space is a growing trend at a time when golf course closures are expected to outpace new openings as part of a natural correction towards equilibrium between golf supply and demand.
Obviously, there is sensitivity towards facility owners and staff who’ve been affected by a course closure, but it is important to have perspective on closures that are not always ‘doom and gloom’ situations. Not all of the land is simply going to weeds. Across the country, fairways have been converted into everything from farmland, nature preserves, and even a mental health and substance abuse facility.
The bulk of course closures, of course, still are being repurposed as high-end mixed-use development, high-density residential, or big-box development. Chris Conti, a senior design associate with Bobby Weed Golf Design, witnessed 40-year-old Chace Lake Country Club in his hometown of Hoover, Alabama, close in 2008 and become a successful housing development under Signature Homes, a regional builder.
A portion of the course lies in a floodplain next to the Cahaba River and is now a public park maintained by the city. A few cart paths and man-made lakes are the lone reminder of what once was a good walk spoiled. “Folks walk along the paths and I take my boys fishing there all the time, and sometimes we swat golf balls on one of the old fairways,” Conti said. “(My daughter) Emily rides here bike on the path.”
When golf courses close, lenders often are left looking to unload these properties or manage them to minimize financial loss, while the surrounding community wants to maintain the existing green space and not be subject to decreased property values from land use changes.
What has become a stumbling block in land-use battles are counties and states adopting legislature that prohibits shuttered courses from redevelopment. Take Tall Chief Golf Course in Fall City, Washington, one of many casualties of an economic slump that hit the golf industry especially hard. King County officials stepped in and blocked an approved 18-unit subdivision. In response to community concerns about the impact of such a development on the adjacent farms and the rural character of the valley, the county acquired the property using Conservation Preservation Tax funding in December 2013.
Instead, Tall Chief’s future looks a lot like its past. The property was a dairy farm until approximately 1950, when it was developed as a golf course and resort. Keller Dairy, a fourth-generation dairy farm and owners of the neighboring property hugging the Snoqualmie River, submitted the winning proposal to King County and purchased the land. The privately held company has converted fairways into a feed farm of corn for its herd of cows that was eye-high by the 4th of the July. The long-term vision includes a milk-processing plant on the land, possibly a barn and other farm buildings, but only three more houses, as specified in the sales agreement with the county.
Prairiewood Golf Club has undergone a similar fate. In the case of the Otsego Township, Michigan, course, the land was zoned for agriculture, so no permits were required to convert it back to farming. Hog farmer Dennis DeYoung, the new owner of the 140-acre plot, told the web site Michigan Live he planned to grow corn and other crops.
Another Michigan course has gone through an even more radical transformation. Yarrow Golf and Conference Resort near Augusta, Michigan, in northeastern Kalamazoo County opened in 1992 and added an 18-hole golf course in 2001. But when business slowed, it closed its doors in late 2015.
Attracted to its large gathering areas and meeting space, individual offices, a full commercial kitchen and existing rooms for sleeping, Nashville, Tennessee-based Foundation Recovery Network bought the 300-acre property and opened Skywood Recovery, a mental health and substance abuse rehabilitation center.
“It was a perfect match,” said Adam Marion, Skywood’s CEO, who said the facility has treated more than 100 patients since it opened in April.
Marion said they kept the driving range and the 18th green and bought new range balls to give patients a “therapeutic experience.”
“In the summer time, staff and patients could be found putting with their shoes off on the green,” said Marion, who noted he hired several of the former golf course staff.
The treatment facility also partnered with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Fish and Wildlife Services to restore 80 acres back to native vegetation, and, plan to plant wildflower seeds in the spring for a fall bloom.
Just outside Traverse City in Northern Michigan, a former Golf magazine and Golf Digest Top 100-ranked course is ready for harvest.
Opened in 1989, High Pointe Golf Club was Tom Doak’s first 18-hole project, and one of three of his designs that have closed. (Beechtree Golf Club in Maryland and Charlotte Golf Links in North Carolina are the others.) Traverse City-based MI Local Hops purchased the 225-acre golf course and surrounding parcels, acquiring a total of 545 acres.
While the golf course market correction, which began in 2006, is overdue and necessary to help return the business to a more healthy equilibrium between supply and demand, hops production in the region is on the rise thanks to the craft brewing craze. Doak, who makes his home 5 miles from the former course and used to walk his dog there, said he was sorry to see it go and resorted to gallows humor when news broke of the sale.
“My first born has turned to alcohol,” Doak wrote in a post on Golf Club Atlas. “Drinks on me.”