The possibility of preserving either all or a portion of about 140 acres in Wilmington, where a development company has proposed replacing a golf course with housing, appears to be gaining momentum among local officials.
All of the New Hanover County commissioners and the mayor of Wilmington are open to discussing options, they said this week.
Some residents of Echo Farms hope elected leaders will consider buying the property for a park, while others wish it could remain the Echo Farms Golf Club.
One group of residents, Save Echo Farms, has "been diligent, they've been effective, and I think that there's a gathering will between the city and the county in some cases to consider trying to buy it, and if they want to buy it, we're, under the right circumstances, willing to sell it to them for a park," said Joe Taylor, CEO of Matrix Development, the company that owns the Echo Farms property.
In December, Matrix officially submitted site plans for The Woodlands at Echo Farms, which would would include building single-family homes, townhomes and potentially apartments on the property in question. An announcement that coincided with the submittal characterized the golf course as "struggling."
This week, county and city officials met with Taylor on the topic, said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners. No commitments have been made yet, but the purpose of the meeting was to talk about "the parameters around which the [potential sale] discussions should take place," White said.
While some kind of city-county partnership is on the table, Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said Friday that he hopes the county can buy all of the Echo Farms property in question and save the golf course, but without the county having to manage the amenities.
"The reality is, tourism is one of our mainstay industries and employers," bringing in visitors who want to play golf, go shopping, go out to eat and other activities, he said.
"You remove one of those key elements tourists like to do, which is play a game of golf, you make your town less attractive," Barfield said.
Barfield, who said he has been working on the issue since October, said he is waiting to hear answers from the UNC School of Government on the legal feasibility of the county potentially buying the property and hopes to soon know finalized numbers for a purchase price and funding.
Commissioner Rob Zapple said he is open to more than one possibility for what has become a controversial topic, with legal proceedings initiated by some residents against Matrix.
"There's an awful lot of pressure for development and growth there [around Echo Farms], and I think it's reasonable to say, before we give up 139 acres for more development, that we should stop and talk about this and see if we can maintain some of that space as greenspace," Zapple said.
He said he wants public input because to cover the property with hundreds of more homes, in his opinion, is "the least desirable" outcome. At the same time, Zapple said, the economic model for potentially purchasing the site shouldn't be "a drag on anyone."
He said Matrix seems "to be open to the idea of peeling off portions of the 139 acres so that there could be some other portion developed and a portion saved."
Commissioners Skip Watkins and Pat Kusek said Friday that Barfield's opinions do not represent those of all members of the board.
Watkins said he cannot support buying a golf course that is losing money, and Kusek agreed.
“If we were to buy it, the citizens would have an ongoing loss,” Watkins said. “It’s just not profitable. Every $1 million we spend represents a third of a penny of county ad valorem tax, $1 million we can’t give to schools or the sheriff’s department ... It’s a matter of limited resources."
Watkins added, “I’m also against public taxpayer dollars competing against a privately owned golf course” or any private enterprise.
At the same time, "it is worth looking at providing greenspace in that area,” Watkins said, but whether that would be part of the property or all of it remains to be seen.
The way the matter has unfolded in recent days has been disappointing in a few ways for Kusek, she said.
"The issue has not been brought before all five of us together, and I don't think it's appropriate for one commissioner to go out and make a statement on behalf of the board of commissioners because each of us has one vote," Kusek said.
Kusek said the county is well above the average for the amount of park space it has while the city is well below.
"But the other issue is that we are charged to be fiscally responsible, to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money, and things have to be paid for. We can't do everything for everybody, and there's a lot of issues in this town right now, including opioid abuse and mental health [treatment needs] and a lot of other things we have to find money to take care of and be proactive with," Kusek said.
But Kusek said she's always open to listening to options, other than buying a struggling golf course that would have to be maintained. "The whole issue has to come before us before I'd be willing to go out on a limb and make a statement either way," she said.
Mayor Bill Saffo said this week, "I think it should be a partnership between the city and the county because significant growth in the next 10 years is going to be in that corridor from Shipyard Boulevard down to River Road."
When the $38 million parks bond referendum was approved by voters, population growth and a scarcity of land was key, Saffo said.
"When you look to the future as to how many people are going to be in that section of the county and the city, I still feel personally that we need additional open space for future needs because once it's gone, it's gone forever," the mayor said.
Had city officials known earlier that the Echo Farms property might be the subject of development, the city might have been able to include it or a portion of it in the bond plan, he said. As it stands now, Saffo said, "I will tell you I'm hopefully optimistic that something positive can happen."
Taylor said Friday that in the meantime, "we're continuing to move ahead with the development process," working with Save Echo Farms on the final designs for each of the tracts included in the master plan and incorporating modifications based on resident input.