Regulations and the market drive developers to create less toxic, more natural courses. But what?s the price to play?

By Cheryl Weber

From his office in Bonita Springs, Fla., Ed Rodgers, a vice president at the Bonita Bay Group, thinks green thoughts. ?Most golfers feel that they?re environmentalists, and they appreciate a natural look and wildlife. When they stand on the site and see egrets, cranes, and bobcats, that?s more powerful than any marketing dollars you can spend,? he says.

Rodgers is talking about Mediterra, a 1,700-acre community under construction in North Naples that includes 950 home sites and two golf courses. A plan developed for Mediterra by Audubon International, the group leading the charge in environmentally sensitive golf communities, calls for preserving 400 acres of wetlands, excavating beds full of exotic seeds and replanting them with native trees and shrubs, and installing 36 bird boxes. ?We took a site almost devoid of wildlife,? Rodgers says, ?and went from 12 to 48 species of birds.?

The term ?green golf course community? has long been an oxymoron. As they compete for buyers, developers are accustomed to pulling out all the stops to ensure that their luxury home sites wrap around well-groomed, tournament-quality golf courses. Often, that translates to links that look lush but are a biological wasteland, requiring tons of water and toxic chemicals to keep up.

Now, though, developers are increasingly turning to Mother Nature to help them sell houses and lots. They?ve found that with careful planning and high-tech maintenance, golf communities can be earth-friendly and financially sound ? at a cost.

Green journey

As trend-conscious golf community developers start to think green, they?re left to ponder the pros and cons of going the environmental distance. A couple of green-tinged measures make most developers feel as if they?re doing their part.

But for golf course architect Ron Garl, planting a hedgerow or two isn?t enough. The list of experts he consults with on a typical project is long: arborists, soil and water conservationists, endangered species experts, geotechnical engineers, and archaeologists, to name a few. ?Real environmental work isn?t what you do the first time. It?s what gets carried forward into the future,? he says. ?What?s important in our design process is that environmental work is sustainable, in the backyards as well as in the golf courses.?

Audubon?s program, too, is rigorous. At its core is a natural resources management plan that governs the gamut of construction and operating issues. It dictates standards for waste management, energy efficiency, water quality and conservation, integrated pest management, and maintaining wildlife habitat. Rodgers estimates that the Bonita Bay Group spent 5 percent to 10 percent more up front to build to Audubon?s Silver Signature Sanctuary Program standards. But he believes the decreased use of pesticides, fertilizer, and water over time cancel out the extra construction costs.

?The cost of maintenance is a tough one to measure,? Rodgers says. ?But we?ve cultivated a turf root system that goes much deeper into the ground to search for water. We only apply water when the computer system recognizes a certain amount of moisture loss.?

Homeowner surveys provide some insight on the marketing success of the community, which is selling two years ahead of projections. The annual surveys show that ?buyers? No. 1 reason for living at Bonita Bay was the fact that it looked so natural,? Rodgers says.

Susan Watts, another Bonita Bay Group vice president, says some of the cost of going green will be recouped from golf course membership fees and lot sales, which range from $550,000 to $880,000 for single-family home sites around the Tom Fazio?designed South Course. Audubon?s Sanctuary Program limits 18-hole golf courses to 90 acres of irrigated turf, giving the developer the opportunity to create more views of lakes and nature preserves, and charge accordingly.

In Bonita Bay?s niche, at least, buyers seem willing to pay. ?Baby boomers are interested in being part of the solution,? Watts says. ?All the things you can do on a master planned community level generally turn out to be things people love ? adding native plants, enhancing marshes that attract birds for people to look at. It creates a fantastic lifestyle that our buyers really, really appreciate.?

Turfgrass trial

On the other hand, Centex claims altruism, pure and simple, as its motivation for treading lightly on the earth. That, and the cachet of being ahead of the curve. The company?s Crown Colony, a new 400-acre golf community in South Florida designed by Garl, is pioneering the use of Paspalum, a hybrid turfgrass developed by the University of Georgia. It presents the promise of using less water and 50 percent less fertilizer than Bermuda grass, and its saltwater tolerance means it can be irrigated with a blend of brackish and fresh water. ?When we purchased Paspalum last summer, it cost one-and-a-half times more than Bermuda grass,? says Steve Spaugh, director of golf course maintenance. ?We?re on target to make up any cost differences within 12 to 20 months.?

Because it will likely sell the course when all the homes are built, director of sales and marketing Paul Rondeau says the long-term maintenance savings won?t benefit Centex?s bottom line. He explains the Paspalum choice this way: ?As far as I know, we?re the only golf course in the area to experiment with this grass. We feel like 10 years from now it will be the norm, so we?re excited to be leaders.? And he avoided the green hook in his marketing. ?Our buyers are more concerned about how the ball lies on the grass. I?m not sure the environmental angle would have had that success.?

States get tough

Stricter regulations in all states are helping to ensure that green isn?t just a marketing ploy. ?There are a lot of regulations in place that force the issue,? says David Bishop, director of environmental stewardship for the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in Lawrence, Kan. ?The regulatory world has gotten so tight that in order to build a golf course, a developer has to build in best management practices.?

The environmental issues vary by region, he says, but the most common denominator is water ? either protecting groundwater from pesticide runoff or limiting its use for irrigation.

Garl, who helped draft Audubon?s program, says the number of developers inquiring about how to do green golf courses has risen in recent years, both in response to new restrictions and to attract buyers. ?Interest started increasing about five years ago,? he says, ?but it?s picked up momentum in the last two or three years.?

In many communities, environmentally conscious citizens are also sending a warning to developers. Colorado-based Chaffin/Light Associates is one developer whose green leanings won the support of anti-growth activists in the tiny mountain town of Basalt. When the developer?s proposal for the 300-acre Roaring Fork Club went before the town council, the community raised a furor. But Jim Chaffin and Jim Light quickly proved their intentions to do the right thing by hiring Jerome Osentowski, founder of the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute, and who is locally respected for his work with integrated pest management.

Osentowski worked with the Jack Nicklaus design team on a plan incorporating 20 acres of ?bio-islands? that weave in and out of the golf course and its 48 cabins, modestly sized at 2,500 square feet. These hot spots of diversity include 8,000 trees such as cottonwoods, aspens, and red-twig dogwood; 20,000 shrubs; and waves of wildflowers and legumes. They create a rich edge of beneficial plant communities flush with milk thistle weevil, lacewings, and lady beetles, which protect the greens and fairways from bad bugs. ?We attracted a non-stinging wasp that?s a predator of the cutworm, which lives to eat the roots of golf course grass,? Light says. The developer put the maintenance plan in writing, convincing the townspeople that it could avoid most of the chemicals common to golf course management.

Permitting troubles and difficulties establishing the turfgrass delayed the resort?s opening by six months. But the spectacular wildflowers blooming on the unfinished course wooed customers and investors. On Saturdays, Osentowski conducted tours for a parade of prospective buyers.

?There is a ground swell of pressure to do more environmentally sound golf courses, but it?s still just a grassroots movement,? Light says. ?The people here didn?t want another golf course but a new idea. We have to be more innovative about whatever we?re doing. The fundamental key to our company?s success is the commitment from the top to sustainable practices. It takes more time and money up front, but the end product is there forever.?

Going green

Historically at odds with one another, environmental groups and golf community developers have linked up in recent years to create standards for ecological stewardship.

In 1995, the Center for Resource Management, in Salt Lake City, launched an ongoing Golf and the Environment Initiative, whose steering committee represents the golf industry, the EPA, and environmental groups such as Save the Bay and Friends of the Earth. They produce conferences, demonstration projects, and educational videos and literature including ?Environmental Principles for Golf Courses in the United States? and an ?Environmental Siting Guide for Golf Course Development.? For more information, contact the Center for Resource Management, 801-466-3600, or visit the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America?s Web site at

The Audubon International Signature Cooperative Sanctuary Program helps landowners and developers plan, construct, and manage golf communities with an eye toward environmental sustainability. It offers different levels of certification to new and existing golf communities. For more information, check out its Web site at, or call 270-869-9410.

Michigan State University, East Lansing, Mich., offers an environmental stewardship program for existing golf courses in Michigan. Call Debra Swartz or Marc McMullen at MSU, 517-355-8361.

?Cheryl Weber is based in Severna Park, Md.

Published in BIG BUILDER Magazine, June 2002