Monday, June 15, 2009

Three Monday Morning Interviews for Countryside Golf Course Management

The 11th Green at Countryside

The 11th Green at Countryside

All three responses to the RFP (Request For Proposals) to manage Countryside Golf Course for 10 years will interview with the selection panel Monday morning prior to the Council Meeting at 2:00 PM. This is also prior to a briefing following the 2:00 PM meeting when CIP  (Capital Improvement Projects) will be discussed – Countryside being one of them.

If investment by the City is required by all three respondants what will Council do? The snag placed in the RFP will make all three respondants nervous. The 10 year managment is split into two 5 year increments. After the first 5 years a performance evaluation will take place. It is also understood that for ANY other reason (like the “snow balls chance from hell” development) the City can yank the golf course from the management team. Therefore any investment and improvements the team would have invested would be lost.

It sounds like a no-win situation for any management group. Let’s face it – Council is still thinking that this “vacant land” is developable even after no developer is willing to touch it even in good times.

Council just doesn’t get it. First they buy land which is a functioning golf course with no due diligence of its condition. Not only that they never bothered to come out to look at what $4.1 million of taxpayer money was being spent on – it must be a good idea if “Queen Darlene” says it is thought Council. Council back then was comprised of Mayor Harris, Bev Fitzpatrick, Rupert Cutler, Sherman Lea, Brenda McDaniel, Alfred Dowe, and Brian Wishneff.

To Wishneff’s credit he did try to get Council to tour the golf course prior to purchase but there were no takers.

This is what an investigation by journalist Elizabeth Parsons produced over several months as published in The Roanoker Magazine – see what a developer has to say about the property. But of course Burcham “knows” more then a developer, right?

Be that as it may, Countryside may not have been the silver bullet they were seeking.

“Ask any developer if the Countryside land was a good bet for that kind of housing and they’ll tell you‘no way,” says a Roanoke-based developer familiar with the project, who asks to remain unnamed. He ticks off a laundry list of “no brainers” that he sees as deterrents to the high-end development the city envisioned.

Among them:

•The Countryside parcel’s irregular land shape, withnarrow fairways and a large central chunk of land thatis unbuildable thanks to an airport “clear zone.”

•A ribbon of floodplain surrunding Lick Run Creek, which runs through the property in a southeast direction, also reducing the amount of developable land and creating challenges for stormwater management.

•The proximity of noisy I-581, which defi nes the eastern edge of the property.

•Incoming and outgoing flights that also contribute to noise pollution. Countryside golfers accept the roar of overhead engines as part of its quirky charm, a small sacrifice in exchange for an inexpensive day on thegreen.

Likewise, those who live on the course’s periphery have learned to live with the noise because theyenjoy the views of Countryside’s open green expanse, their communal and de facto back yard. But once the span green had been turned into housing, future homeowners would have no such compensation for the noise.

Add to these factors the poor performance of surrounding schools and the predominance of low- to middle-income housing that characterizes northwest Roanoke, and it makes the prospect of attracting highincome buyers even more questionable.

The Roanoker conferred with three additional real estate appraisers estate appraisers with intimate knowledge of the Countryside parcel. Each has more than 20 years’ experience in the fi eld, and each believes that the kind of development the city had planned for the property was unrealistic at best.

Could that be why the first potential developer to sniff out the deal walked? Toll Brothers, a venerable high-end national developer, initially responded to the city’s request for a proposal in fall 2005. But in February 2006, Toll Brothers backed out. In a letter to City Planner Chris Chittum, Toll Brothers Realty Trust Assistant Vice President Timothy W. Norman wrote that the company was “not interested in pursuing the project” because the “Toll Brothers product line would not fit the needs of the local market.”

Long before the 2005 sale, the problems were described in a 2002 project memorandum by the Davidson, N.C., offi ce of Lawrence Group Architects, a national concern. It was the one and only outside study the city commissioned on the project. Concluding that development was “feasible” but “not without challenges,” it suggested the city negotiate a one-year option period to purchase, during which time it should conduct a weeklong, intensive public planning workshop, including lawyers, developers, city representatives and community members, to get things off on the right foot. Th e rough master plan conceived there could then be “shopped around” to developers.

No such workshop was held, and early promises that the city would involve Countryside’s neighbors in the planning process were brushed aside.

“There were too many discussions behind closed doors,” Vice-Mayor ShermanLea recalls. “Th e [neighborhood] began to lose trust in us.” Emails sent by Lea and then-fellow Councilman Brian Wishneff between May and September 2005 pleaded with Burcham for greater neighborhood involvement. They were met with resistance.

“My concern then was that we didn’t have a plan. We reacted instead of being proactive. … The concept was good, but I wish we had a little more research,” Lea says.

Although he was eventually “convinced” to authorize Burcham’s purchase, he says he is now in favor of preserving Countryside as an 18-hole golf course.

“An experienced developer would say if I can’t do A, I could B. If I don’t do B, I can do C, D or E,” our source says. It’s clear that the city did not approach the project with a developer’s eye.

Another developer with signifi cant property interests in Virginia says that, in an already high-stakes game, odds are stacked against public entities in the fi rst place: “Th e option period is any developer’s contingency plan. If market conditions change, he can pull out.

So where does this leave us? For now, the strategy of fi nding an operator for a 10-year lease has quieted neighborhood rage – but Townsend is clear that once the market turns around, all options are back on the table. When that will be is a matter of speculation, as is the question of whether developers will flock to a land parcel that is problematic even in the best of times.

Courtesy of The Roanoker Magazine

Posted By Valerie Garner

Categories: Roanoke City Politics

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