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When dirt is more valuable than grass. Why some golf courses are closing down, making way for development

Published: Jan. 13, 2022 at 12:33 PM EST
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - For many people, especially those looking to retire, living on a golf course is a dream come true — but as some folks in New Hanover County have discovered, that dream can turn into a nightmare.

“We fell in love with it, sold the house up there bought down here, and literally, it was to retire and live on a golf course, it was our dream,” Robin Webb, a homeowner who lives on the golf course at The Cape said.

Neighbors at The Cape have been involved in a lawsuit for several years, hoping to stop developers from turning the once lush fairways and greens, into new residential units.

“So when we heard the golf course closed right after Florence — totally discouraged. What did we do, did we make a horrible investment, what’s going to happen? What resulted is just gross neglect,” Webb said.

Once lush fairways are now replaced by overgrown weeds, a sore sight for owners who paid a premium for their golf course lots.

Mike Bodnar also lives on the course; he says it’s not just the aesthetics, but the overgrown course is welcoming in new unexpected neighbors.

“There’s bear. We don’t have any bear right here, other parts of The Cape do. There’s bear, there’s deer of course, there are gators. Now, since the course is overgrown, we’ve seen bobcat, we’ve seen coyote,” he said.

The closure of the course is nothing new, in fact, golf courses across the country have been closing with developers moving in and replacing the green space with residential units for about 15 years. Greg Nathan is the Chief Business Officer for the National Golf Foundation (NGF). He says what we’re seeing, in part, is a correction in supply.

“Between 1986 and 2005, a 20-year period, the number of golf courses grew by 40%, just in that 20-year period,” Nathan said.

That’s a lot of courses. In fact, the United States has more than 16,000 golf courses according to the NGF. For comparison, that is more golf courses than there are Starbucks or McDonalds.

“What you did have, a point where the building of new golf courses continued well past where the participation was satisfied,” Nathan said.

This was fine for a while and things continued to grow, but then in 2006 the market began to change.

“That was the first year that you had more closures of golf courses than openings,” he said.

Since golf courses are expensive to maintain and often don’t make much money, shutting them down and selling the land makes sense for owners — especially when land in the area is selling at record high prices.

For homeowners who often buy lots on courses for a premium, that can come as a shock. Typically, they don’t know that the courses are often not owned by the neighborhood, but private owners. While some courses are owned and maintained by the communities they are located within, private management companies are not uncommon.

In Wilmington, where developable land is at an all-time low, it’s often a simple decision for those owners.

“So when you hear now about a golf course closing, it doesn’t mean anything relative to decline in demand for golf; what it really means is that the dirt is more valuable than the grass,” Nathan said.

At the end of the day, golf courses make for beautiful views and are often the perfect place to retire. But, as with any investment, buyers should do their homework before buying because when it comes to golf courses — once they’re gone, there are no mulligans.

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