The developer of Echo Farms is open to a potential purchase by the county and city of about 18 acres, including about five clay tennis courts and the pool, of the Echo Farms Golf & Country Club. And on Monday, New Hanover County officials gave the green light to opening negotiations.
Joe Taylor, CEO of property owner Matrix Development Group, said residents of Echo Farms, particularly the group Save Echo Farms, have been pushing for that type of measure, "and we are trying to be as flexible as possible to accommodate their goals, which is more park land and passive uses and ensuring that on an ongoing basis, the pool and tennis courts will be there."
While plans are proceeding on the final designs and approvals needed for parts of The Woodlands at Echo Farms, the residential development that will replace the golf course with single-family houses, townhomes and apartments, Matrix Development has held off on progressing with plans for redevelopment of the pool and tennis court area "because we weren't sure about what the city and county would want to do," Taylor said.
On Monday morning, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners unanimously voted to allow County Manager Chris Coudriet and county administration staff to enter into negotiations for the 18-acre property, with the idea that the city of Wilmington would be a potential partner in any eventual purchase and new public recreational facility operation. Coudriet said in addition to the open space, tennis courts, and pool facilities, the potential buy would also include the tennis and golf clubhouses.
County Commissioner Rob Zapple said it was his understanding that there are no other clay tennis courts in the county that are open to the public and that there remains a lack of enough tennis courts to meet the demand, a statement with which Coudriet agreed. Zapple asked Coudriet about the challenges of trying to develop a new set of courts, and Coudriet replied, "The cost of trying to create a set of clay tennis courts in this part of our county would be substantial ... To acquire the right number of acres and the right place and the development of that, I think, would far surpass what we would successfully negotiate with the developer for the acquisition of those facilities."
Officials have not said how much the property might cost, and Taylor said in an interview Friday that the process would likely require an appraisal initiated by local government officials.
Zapple said at the board's meeting Monday, "It sounds like the potential for a very good deal for the citizens of New Hanover County."
County Commissioner Jonathan Barfield said, "I think the timing is right and a good fit for both the city and the county, as well as the residents of our community, for us to pursue this asset."
Answering County Commissioner Pat Kusek's question about whether the county has any assurance that the ongoing cost to operate the facilities would be shared equally by the city and county should a purchase take place, Coudriet said he and Wilmington City Manager Sterling Cheatham have discussed the matter informally in recent weeks, but those details would be worked out before a potential agreement would be brought back to the board for consideration.
Taylor pointed out that as part of the settlement of a lawsuit
last year between Matrix and Echo Farms residents, one of the concessions on the part of Matrix was that the pool would stay open through this summer. "Preservation of the pool long term was a highly desired outcome for them," Taylor said.
Final approval of any purchase agreement that results from the Echo Farms property negotiations would have to be approved by the Board of Commissioners by March 5, according to the authorization the board approved Monday.