Abandoned golf courses are prime opportunities for redevelopment—but be ready to get environmental remediation and community buy-in

When Tiger Woods won the Masters in April, golf course owners across the country hoped it would be “the putt heard ‘round the world.” The sport has seen a steady decline in interest since its heydays from the late ‘70s to early ‘90s. As a result, courses have been forced to close, and many homeowners—who spent top dollar for a home with a view of the greens—are now paying for an amenity that no longer exists.

Developers, meanwhile, have taken notice of these vast tracts of underused land. They are often the last available open spaces in heavily populated areas, and many are surrounded by affluent communities that were once paired with the course. The question, then, is: What can you do with the land, and how best to do it?

Site remediation is the greatest challenge to golf course redevelopment

The risk to redeveloping a golf course is what lies under the new development. Maintaining a perfectly manicured landscape requires an overwhelming amount of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Over the decades, these chemicals build up in the soil and groundwater to levels that can be unacceptable for certain kinds of redevelopment. Be sure you’re prepared for strict environmental due diligence before flipping a golf course.

The type of development and zoning can make a difference in the environmental remediation required. Since many courses already had restaurants and shops, it’s relatively easy—in terms of zoning—to redevelop an abandoned course into a retail center where much of the land will be paved over. The same can hold true for industrial development on the property (although surrounding communities may oppose such usage).

Developing a golf course into residential space is the most challenging option but it’s also the most financially appealing. An 18-hole course is approximately 150 acres, which can accommodate 600 detached single-family homes. With the addition of townhouses and apartments, this sort of development can mean thousands of new residents.

3 key steps to successful golf course redevelopment

While many municipalities may be eager to see something on this vacant land—and very willing to negotiate—there are some expensive and delicate items developers should be ready to address:

  1. As stated earlier, golf courses can accumulate a lot of toxic chemicals. A developer should work with an environmental consultant who is familiar with golf course remediation. A Phase I Assessment will include soil and groundwater sampling of tees and greens. If high levels of toxins are found, the consultant can recommend a Phase II Assessment.

    In the case of extensive contamination, developers may have to work with their state’s environmental protection department to create a remediation plan/timeline that may also include future monitoring. Once contamination has been corrected, development can continue.
  2. Any development is a NIMBY issue (i.e. “Not In My Back Yard”), literally, for surrounding golf course communities. It’s in the best interest of developers to work with those communities, be transparent, gain a better understanding of their concerns, and find mutually amicable solutions. Those solutions might include removal of toxins, the creation of a landscaped buffer zone, or a smaller golf course.
  3. Developers must also work with local water management agencies to close irrigation wells that were used to feed the green. These are no longer needed and can present environmental risks.

South Florida’s golf game

When it comes to Florida real estate, year-round golf has traditionally been a huge reason many people choose to reside in the Sunshine State. But while residential non-golf development has remained steady through the sport’s waning decades, a number of communities that once looked out over manicured greens now have a view of weed-ridden fields.

Many community members enjoy this wide-open view, whereas others would like to see the land become a public park. This can put a financial strain on cities to purchase that land, develop it into parkland, and maintain it, however.

Developers with vision and an ability to navigate city zoning and community wishes hold the key to smart and profitable golf-course redevelopment. The Morris Southeast Group team can help you create these new links for old links. To learn more about our property investment opportunities and/or other services, call us at 954.474.1776. You can also reach Ken Morris directly at 954.240.4400 or via email at kenmorris@morrissegroup.com.


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