Gloucester County's Maple Ridge Golf Club - known in its heyday as the Eagles Nest, when former quarterback Ron Jaworski was the owner - closed more than a year ago and has found new life as a haven for hikers and bicyclists.
The land has rolling hills - a rarity in this area - and a babbling U-shaped stream that nourishes the Mantua Creek watershed, said Richard Dilks, chairman of the environmental commission in Wenonah, a tiny borough that sits on its border. The 112 acres have swaths of tall pines and deciduous conifers and are home to deer, red fox and 63 species of birds, including an albino red-tailed hawk that has naturalists abuzz.
Over the past months, environmentalists have watched, broken-hearted, as plans advanced calling for more than 100 houses on the site, which straddles Mantua and Deptford.
"People are unhappy with the development plan because it would be a loss of open space that's just beautiful," said Dilks, who would rather see the land preserved.
It might not be too late.
The softening of the real estate market has sparked an unusual alliance between local environmentalists and IBG Partners of Washington, the developer that owns the land. Once on opposite sides of the table, they teamed up late last month to ask the county to buy the property for open space. The mayors, the planning board chairmen and environmental groups in Deptford, Mantua and Wenonah have written letters supporting the idea.
The estimated market value is $6.3 million, said IBG project manager James Brinson, but he says that is just a starting point for negotiations. Though IBG owns 15 other golf courses in the Mid-Atlantic area, he said this was the first time the company had considered selling one to a government.
"It has to do with where the real estate market is right now. We're exploring this as another option," he said, adding that the housing project had not been ruled out.
County officials say they are reviewing the offer, and state Green Acres director John Flynn said state money was available to assist in the acquisition.
It is not unheard of for golf courses in Pennsylvania and New Jersey - and around the country - to be acquired by local or state agencies, though it is still uncommon. Courses have become available after a boom in construction in the late 1980s and into the 1990s led many owners to sell to investors or developers, or to file for bankruptcy. "It's like our golf industry is trying to correct itself to meet supply and demand," said Geoff Surrette, executive director of the Philadelphia section of the PGA. He said the boom in golf-course construction outpaced the number of golfers, which has leveled off at roughly 25 million. The National Golf Foundation reported 121 golf course closings last year, the largest decline in decades.
Over the past two years, the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection has bought six golf courses with Green Acres funding, including White Oaks Country Club in Franklin Township, Gloucester County, which was leased back to the original owner. Though they were all deed-restricted as permanent open space, some environmental groups criticized those that remained in operation, saying golf courses appealed to a limited crowd, consumed great quantities of precious water, and used ground-polluting pesticides.
But Flynn said the golf courses used environmentally sound practices and noted that some had been turned into parks or wildlife refuges. The former Ponderlodge, in Cape May County, is now a haven for wildlife and popular with bicyclists, he said.
The DEP also provided partial funding to 11 counties and three municipalities to buy golf courses over the past two years, Flynn said. "Golf courses represent some of the largest remaining tracts of open space in the state, and our program makes purchases for conservation and recreational purposes," he said.
Pennsylvania lacks a similar program, but several of its towns acquired golf courses to prevent unwanted development. Among them are Bensalem in Bucks County, Lower Providence in Montgomery County and Exeter in Berks County, which acquired the Reading Country Club through eminent domain to block more than 500 houses. Not all golf courses become open space, however. In Upper Merion, the closed Valley Forge Golf Course is poised to become a development with a hotel, more than 300 homes, a cinema, and commercial space.
What is different about the Maple Ridge proposal is that the developer is well along in the process of getting approvals and is still willing to sell the land to the government. IBG, which bought the golf course in 2005 with plans to build houses, had already obtained subdivision clearance from Deptford in 2006 to build 94 houses on 64 acres there. When Mantua rezoned its portion of the golf course to lessen sprawl, IBG sued, and the two sides agreed last year to a compromise of 29 homes on the tract.
Mantua Mayor Timothy Chell said the number was an improvement over the proposed 42 homes, but he is even more heartened by the proposal to have the county acquire the property.
"No houses are better than 29 houses," he said.
Deptford Mayor Paul Medany said his township had taken the same position. "We didn't propose this, but we support it," he said.
The idea was hatched by Chuck Forsman, a former Wenonah planning board chairman. Forsman contacted Brinson and was surprised when the developer was receptive to his suggestion that the land be sold for use as a park.
"He didn't slam the phone down and say, 'You're crazy.' Lo and behold, he said that this was a good thought and it could turn into something very nice," Forsman said.
After getting the paperwork from Forsman, IBG submitted an application a few weeks ago to have the land preserved.
County Administrator Chad Bruner said the more traditional approach was for towns to ask the county to buy land to stop development.
"The willingness of the developer to sell makes it easier," he said.
"Over the past six months we started seeing this and over the next year we may see more and more of these offers," he said.
Indeed, Ryan Sweet, an economist with MoodysEconomy.com, said the housing slowdown was expected to bottom out in the middle of this year.
"We see it not recovering until 2009," he said.
Flynn, the Green Acres director, said he was eager to review the Maple Ridge application.
"We would certainly prioritize that property," he said. "It's in a part of the state that's seen a lot of development, and we want to preserve what we can."