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Amid a Housing Crisis, Some Eye Golf Courses for Development

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Published January 25, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


MATT MIGNANELLI
  • Matt Mignanelli

For years, Alex Kourabanus dreamed of building a bigger golf course. His family paid $825,000 for nine holes in Williston at a fire-sale auction in 2002, following the sudden closure of Marty Keene's Family Golf World. Kourabanus promptly reopened the business as Catamount Country Club and nurtured a long-term vision of adding a back nine.

Then came the 2008 financial crash, and instead of growing, Catamount Country Club was fighting to stay open. But Kourabanus had a backup plan: The club's manicured fairways also represented 60 developable acres in suburban Chittenden County.

"I knew that my next direction was to try to sell the land," Kourabanus said.

It took almost a decade, but in 2019, with housing increasingly in demand, he finally found a local development partner in Chris Senesac. Construction on the first phase of a 138-unit, mixed-income subdivision of single-family homes, duplex, triplexes and fourplexes is scheduled to begin this fall. Kourabanus, meanwhile, will continue to operate the country club with a few golf holes.

Though some golf courses, especially high-end ones, continue to operate successfully, many have been strained in recent years by soaring expenses and flagging interest in the sport. At the same time, the land is increasingly valuable, and Vermont's urgent need for new housing appears to be reducing public opposition to converting sand traps into subdivisions — that is, until one golfer-lawmaker put forward legislation this month to ban the practice.

Catamount Country Club is one of several Vermont courses that has been eyed for housing in recent years. In 2016, the former owners of Kwiniaska Golf Club in Shelburne sold half the course to Snyder Homes, which is building more than 90 single-family homes and townhouses starting at $700,000 each. The City of Montpelier, meanwhile, is fleshing out plans to redevelop the defunct Montpelier Elks Country Club after residents voted at Town Meeting Day last year to purchase the 130-acre property. Initial sketches suggest the city could help create as many as 530 new mixed-income units there — a huge tally for a municipality with very little inventory.

The 16,000-plus golf courses across the U.S. outnumber Starbucks coffee shops, the National Golf Foundation notes. Courses sprouted like weeds in the two decades preceding the 2008 recession. Since then, more than 1,000 courses have closed, the New York Times recently reported using the foundation's data. More accessible "value-priced" courses have been hardest hit by industry pressures, according to the foundation.

The pandemic gave the industry a needed boost, but among the 60-plus courses operating in Vermont, "you've got a little bit of the haves and the have-nots," said David Soucy, a longtime professional golfer, course manager and former state senator who represented Rutland County until 2019. For the upper-tier private clubs, such as Burlington Country Club and Dorset Field Club, "it's old money, and there's no real worry," Soucy said. Semiprivate clubs in areas with ample competition have somewhat shakier prospects, but Soucy doesn't foresee an "epidemic" of closures anytime soon.

Still, the economic outlook for local public courses worries Rep. Woodman Page (R-Newport). The state's short golf season and aging population don't bode well for the sport, he said.

Earlier this month, Page, who golfs recreationally, introduced a bill that would help preserve existing courses in a roundabout way: by banning the building of houses on them. His bill, H.15, would designate and regulate courses as "protected green space areas" where development is restricted. In addition to trying to relieve Vermont courses from development pressures, Page pitched his idea as an environmental conservation bill. When courses are forced to close, he said in an interview, his proposal would ensure that their pesticide-protected, sculpted fairways remain open space. To that end, the bill would set aside $1 million for the state to convert former golf courses into state parks.

"This might be another way in which we can keep some green spaces within our urban and rural areas," he said.

Page acknowledged that his bill is unlikely to garner many votes during a housing crisis; the Vermont Housing Finance Agency contends that the state must add 40,000 units by 2030. And few Republicans would endorse legislation that limits private property rights.

"It's an outrageous bill that makes it even harder to run a business," said Soucy, who organized "golf day" events for lawmakers on the Statehouse lawn when he was in the Senate.

Page said he devised his proposal after seeing what's happened with the former Montpelier Elks Country Club. The nine-hole course, which opened in 1902, shuttered permanently in November 2020 following years of financial struggles.

A local nonprofit approached city officials the following year about partnering to open a recreation center at the site, Montpelier community and economic development specialist Josh Jerome said. Officials, though, sensed a more ambitious opportunity. Voters approved a $2 million bond last March that, combined with $1 million in city recreation funds, financed a municipal purchase of the entire rolling parcel.

Since the idea of buying the course first surfaced, Jerome said, residents have pushed for the city to locate housing and public recreation on the site.

Montpelier hired a consultant to quickly come up with a master plan while pandemic-era funding to promote housing development is still available. A series of public meetings to gather feedback kicks off on January 28.

"I don't think there's going to be a lot of NIMBYs regarding this particular project," Jerome said.

Residents' decision to purchase the property will give them significantly more say in what happens on the sizable chunk of land. Jerome said the city is navigating how best to balance housing and recreational amenities. The site is located about two miles from the city's downtown, and more than half the land is forested. Unlike downtown Montpelier, the former course is not located in a flood plain, a common barrier to housing development in central Vermont.

Perhaps the most urban golf course in Vermont is located in the city with some of the most chronically expensive housing. Burlington Country Club, a member-owned, private club with a dress code — and where state authorities once broke up an illegal poker game — occupies roughly 150 acres next to the University of Vermont campus and the high-end Hill Section.

The notion that the city would be better served by a different use of that land is an occasional subject of idle chatter among some residents. Former Democratic city councilor and prolific Twitter user Ed Adrian is among those who have contemplated whether housing might be the "highest and best use" for the country club land. Adrian compared the club to the former Burlington College property, which Farrell Properties is redeveloping as a complex of more than 700 housing units on roughly 22 acres.

"You have this sort of tabula rasa you could work from," he said.

Member-owned clubs are unlikely to close absent financial ruin, which Burlington Country Club's most recent nonprofit tax returns suggest is not imminent. And, unlike a majority of Queen City homeowners, the country club, classified as a commercial property, isn't facing the added pressure of higher property taxes; its bill decreased by more than 40 percent in 2021 following a citywide reappraisal. Another sign of the long odds: Michael Monte, CEO of the affordable housing developer Champlain Housing Trust, told Seven Days his organization hasn't inquired about repurposing the property and does not have an opinion about whether the city would benefit from housing development there.

The club's general manager didn't respond to an interview request, nor did Brian Pine, director of the city's Community & Economic Development Office.

In an interview, Adrian, an attorney by day, mused that the city could try to use eminent domain, the process by which the government can seize private land for public use, to force a sale of the course. Given that housing-desperate policy laboratories such as California have yet to pursue that route, Adrian said, "I think we're a little bit away from that here."

Kourabanus, of Catamount Country Club, said he will "miss a lot of the people" once his "blue-collar" club downsizes in 2024. When that day comes, he intends to continue operating the club with just three holes. By adding different tee locations and approaches, Kourabanus wants to re-create a six- or nine-hole experience on the reduced acreage. And he's pleased that the planned housing development includes dozens of units that qualify as "affordable" under Williston town regulations.

"Hopefully young families will stick around Vermont instead of taking off, because they're going to have a project there that's going to be available to all types of financial situations," he said.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Greens Houses | Amid a housing crisis, some eye golf courses for development"