In northern New Castle County, large parcels of land are a rarity, and five of the 10 golf courses on private property north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal are being developed or have been targeted by builders of residential and retail developments.
Properties that are home to failing golf courses have been seized upon by developers, especially in northern New Castle County, where large swaths of open space are a rare prize, the Wilmington, Del.-based News Journal reported.
Five of the 10 golf courses on private property north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal are being developed or have been targeted by builders. Clubs downstate are feeling similar pressures, but the greater availability of buildable farmland makes golf courses less of a draw for southern Delaware developers, the News Journal reported.
Development can be a nightmare for neighbors of those courses, who bought homes for their tree-lined, pastoral views and quiet surroundings. Christiana resident Kathryn Herel has seen the ominous future of Cavaliers Country Club in Newark from the living room of her condominium window for years. First, it was the big box stores of the expanding Christiana Mall retail megalopolis peeking over the golf course’s green vista. Now, if a Pennsylvania developer gets his way in a few years, her view will be of someone else’s house, the News Journal reported.
“It is about quality of life,” Herel said. “I am one of many who feel like we don’t have enough open space, especially in this congested Christiana.”
Outcry from residents has increased pressure on government to intervene. Golf courses also are becoming battlegrounds as developers seek approval for projects, sometimes resulting in lengthy litigation. Community opposition has erupted to plans in places as diverse as Hollywood, Florida, to Boise, Idaho, to Las Vegas, the News Journal reported.
Plans for a housing project on the Valley Green Golf Course in Newberry Township, Pennsylvania, have been in limbo for years, and a judge earlier this month denied the property owner’s appeal of a township’s decision made in 2013. A King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, retail and housing project on a golf course was hung up in a legal battle for decades, the News Journal reported.
“Delaware isn’t immune. It is happening everywhere with many (clubs) on the edge,” said Bill Barrow, executive director of the Delaware State Golf Association, which has 44 member courses across Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
The industry downturn has seen prices for golf course property plummet. In some cases, courses are selling for a fifth of their previous value, according to Lester George, a Virginia-based golf course architect. ”We see golf courses continuing to fail,” George said. “Some are changing hands at mind-bogglingly low numbers.”
This creates a tempting situation for both developers and golf course owners to repurpose, the News Journal reported.
“It gets pretty enticing when someone waves money in front of you and says, ‘You can continue to operate this club at a loss or I will give you this much money for this property because I can develop it,'” Barrow said.
In 2014, the county raked in 40 percent more in taxes on property transfers compared to 2010 collections. “Prices are up and demand is there. It is not where it was in 2005 or 2006 when everything worked, but it is a lot better than 2008, 2009 or 2010,” said prominent local developer Louis Capano III, principal of LC Homes in Wilmington.
Last month, Capano unveiled plans for a 554-unit home and apartment development on the 111-acre Brandywine Country Club property in Wilmington. Capano, who is also developing a golf course in Florida, said these properties present a profitable island for developers, the News Journal reported.
“They are typically the hole in the doughnut in a stable community where everything around it is already developed,” Capano said. “It is an already established market and that is what makes it attractive.”
The trend is pronounced in northern New Castle County because of limited land options for builders. Shawn Tucker, attorney for the Cavaliers County Club developer, said much of the existing open space in northern New Castle County is parkland or has estate zoning that greatly limits the number of homes that can be built in a given space, the News Journal reported.
“Developers are looking for open land in growth areas whether it is golf course or not a golf course,” Tucker said.
Tucker said government recommendations for development also encourage developers to make use of unused properties in populated areas, though those are often the most controversial projects. “It can be a little schizophrenic at times for developers,” Tucker said.
Newport developer Greg Pettinaro, managing partner of the Pettinaro company, who has proposed a 234-unit residential development for the former Hercules Country Club in Mill Creek, said building outside established residential areas isn’t attractive because there is less road and sewer infrastructure. His golf course development, formerly known as Delaware National Country Club, is viable because it is along a well-established route, he said.
“In northern New Castle County, there is not a lot of open spaces,” Pettinaro said. “The farther you are out west from Hockessin, there is not a lot of houses or major road systems and not enough connection points between A and B.”
The fact that most older golf courses, including Brandywine and Cavaliers, require expensive environmental remediation to remove arsenic contamination after decades of pesticide treatment is evidence of the profitability of such developments, the News Journal reported.
In central and southern Delaware, where open space is more abundant, far more new developments have been built on farmland than on golf courses. But some investors have turned their attention to the links. Rehoboth Beach’s Old Landing Golf Course, a public layout, is slated to become a development called Osprey Point, with 340 units of housing, half of them townhomes, the News Journal reported.
Many courses in southern Delaware were built as a feature of residential developments. George Cole, a Sussex County Council member, said these are more restricted from development. “If it was a planned community with a golf course, there’s issues of density,” Cole said. “We would definitely look at that differently. I don’t think there’s anything to prevent them from asking, but they would have issues with sewers and traffic.”
Though the development pressures are different downstate, public hearings on the Osprey Point project have seen plenty of opposition, the News Journal reported.
“We have a lot of people nearby who hate to see the open space of the golf course disappear. It’s on a gorgeous spot and it looks out over Rehoboth Bay,” Cole said.
Much of the opposition hinges on nearby homeowners about lost value and diminished open space. Herel said she can’t see the need for more homes and feels the area around Christiana Mall is already overbuilt—a common complaint when courses are targeted for residential or commercial construction, the News Journal reported.
“Where I used to see huge trees and green grass, I will now see a window into someone’s bedroom,” said Herel, noting the proximity to the golf course was part of the reason she moved to there.
Recent years have seen several stores like the 110,000-sq. ft. Cabela’s and 200,000-sq. ft. Christiana Fashion Center built around the mall. Sandra Maher, a retired nurse who has lived near Cavaliers since the 1970s, said continued development around the mall has driven previously unseen wildlife into her yard. Stormwater drainage and traffic are also concerns, the News Journal reported.
“We have seen it grow from just farms and horses to this monumental traffic and congestion nightmare,” Maher said. “We couldn’t believe anyone would consider it because Churchmans Road can’t take any more traffic.”
Tucker said the Cavaliers developer plans to build more road improvements than what is required by law. But for neighbors, there is a disconnect between what is needed and what is actually required of developers. Herel and neighbors created a petition asking state and county government to intervene and help keep the club space open. Elsewhere, the removal of deed restrictions that barred development of the DuPont Country Club golf courses in a wealthy portion of Brandywine Hundred has increased pressure on local government to intervene, the News Journal reported.
New Castle County Councilman Bob Weiner said the development of the course would see similar outcry from residents as the saga around Barley Mill Plaza, DuPont’s former office park in Greenville. Prompted by resident protests, the county won a protracted lawsuit blocking a mega commercial and residential development plan for that property in 2014, the News Journal reported.
“There is considerable concern about the ultimate fate of the DuPont Country Club,” said Weiner, who has two other golf courses being developed in his district. “The community is just as concerned about the potential development of the DuPont country club as the community was and is about the Barley Mill (Plaza) site.”
Activist DuPont investors have criticized the company’s country club and Hotel du Pont as a drag on shareholder value. If DuPont Co. sheds the club from its books, Barrow said he can imagine a club operator running one of the club’s three golf courses while selling the others to prop up the golf business as many club operations have done in light of the game’s struggles, the News Journal reported.
“That property is insanely valuable in that area,” Barrow said. “You have to have your head in the sand to think everyone is going to live happily ever after.”
Pending legislation being considered by County Council would create an open space zoning category, which has been mentioned by government officials as a potential solution to such a development. If passed, the law would give government the ability to rezone property used as recreation for more than 25 years to prohibit development, the News Journal reported.
County Councilman David Tackett, who has sponsored the legislation, has said golf courses could qualify for protection, but that isn’t the primary thrust of the proposed law. That said, the proposal interests those looking to develop club properties, the News Journal reported.
Robert A. Carucci, managing partner of club owner Cavaliers Realty LLC., said he expects a development plan for Cavaliers to be submitted to county government before the law is voted on by County Council. This would pre-empt any potential effect of the legislation on Cavaliers. The club remains open and will continue to accept members until the multi-year approval process for its development is complete. The developer plans to hold another public meeting about the development proposal before the plans are submitted to county government, the News Journal reported.
Tucker said he feels the proposed law is well intended, but its implementation could lead to headaches for property owners and the county depending on how it is applied. “The devil is in the details down the road. These golf course owners have been paying taxes on their current zoning for years,” he said.
The county has sparred with golf course developers in court previously. The county sued a group seeking to develop the former Three Little Bakers Country Club in Pike Creek in 2010, arguing deed restrictions on the property prohibit a planned 288-home development there. A judge ruled golf course land must remain part of the property even if a club isn’t in operation. County councilwoman Janet Kilpatrick, who represents the area, said the county is still litigating exactly what can be built there. The county has spent more than $800,000 on outside attorneys and the golf course sits overgrown and empty, the News Journal reported.
More recently, Newark city officials sought to cut the number of homes that could be built on the Newark County Club’s 120-acre property through a government-initiated rezoning. The club had explored selling its land to a developer. The proceeds would have funded a more modern, larger facility 10 miles away in Cecil County, Maryland, in an effort to reverse its decline in membership, the News Journal reported.
A lawsuit filed against city by the club was withdrawn after the rezoning measure failed to get adequate support of City Council in November. Despite defeating the government effort, Dennis Barba, the president of the club’s board of directors, said members met in December and nearly unanimously voted to abandon any plans to move the club, the News Journal reported.
“It has opened our eyes to basically create a strategy to allow the club to be a viable institution of the city of Newark and maintain its presence in Newark,” Barba said.