It is a bright sunny afternoon in late January. The rolling greens of the Echo Farms Golf and Country Club, established in 1974, sporadically populate well-dressed and suntanned golfers, homeowners raking pine needles in their immaculate backyards, a lone dog-walker, a small flock of white Ibis, and one messy-haired journalist. I’m here to “get the story,” and it seemed like much more fun to commandeer a golf cart than walk. As I zoom around the course, geese scatter and I dodge slices. More importantly, I ask everyone I encounter their thoughts about the gray cloud of doom hovering over this artificially verdant landscape like a thunderhead: the looming threat of development.
Owned by the Matrix Development Group, a multi-billion-dollar property holding company based in New Jersey, the course will soon see 536 new housing units (171 single-family homes, 125 townhomes, and 240 multi-family homes) sardined onto only 107 acres. The golf course, 139 acres of what the Save Echo Farms group calls “Green Space,” will transmogrify into The Woodlands at Echo Farms (anyone else notice developers always seem to name the development after what it destroys?). The homeowners, led by John Hirchak, and the “grassroots, non-partisan” Save Echo Farms group, have united against development plans. In fact, they have been fighting tooth and nail to stop them for several months.
The general response I gathered is some form or variation of “it sucks” or “we hate it!” Robert Dovichak, swinging at fallen pine cones with a pitching wedge on the periphery of the first hole, exasperatedly informs me, “Property owners have rights.”
Another man, an older Irish guy with a TRUMP sticker on his car, tells me, “Tell ‘em that Tom Hart is pissed.” It also is Hart’s opinion, after a prolonged sigh: “It would take a miracle to save it now.”
The sentiment was echoed by an elderly woman raking pine needles in her immaculate backyard on the seventh green. “It’s hopeless,” she says. “My husband and I bought the house to look at the golf course, and see the gentlemen walking past in their fancy clothes. I don’t want to look at other people’s backyards.
“Of course,” she adds, pausing to lean against her rake, “the course can’t keep operating at a deficit. It’s not the federal government.”
Will White—the only other guy out here in jeans and a T-shirt—is pulling golf balls out of one of the water hazards on the tenth green, using a dredge pulled by a tractor-mounted winch (I always wondered how they got the balls out of the water).
“Golf courses are all I do,” he notes in his deep, resonant Southern drawl. He works from Georgia to southern Maryland, doing contracting work on courses, and has seen this happen before. The exact same scenario played out in Fuquay-Varina, at a course called “Crooked Creek,” he says. After a similar lengthy battle between homeowners and the course owner, it eventually closed in April of 2016.
“The course needs members to survive,” White says, perched on his tractor. “The older crowd is dying off, and not as many younger people are playing. The land is worth more money built up than the owners could ever make with the golf course.” He grins. “And they’re not making any more land.”
• • • • •
Flash forward to the Tuesday evening after my visit to Echo Farms, in a tiny cramped seat in the Roland Grise Middle School auditorium. I am joined by 120 other people, the overwhelming majority of whom are white and over the age of 60. On stage is Mr. Richard Cline, a consultant with Community and Environmental Defense Services from Maryland. For 40 years he has helped communities fight developers and now he is working with Save Echo Farms.
The main concerns of SEF are traffic congestion on Carolina Beach Road (which already has the highest number of fatal accidents in the county). More so, congestion is projected to double in 10 years. Creek pollution is a problem, too. If the development happens, it will seal the fate of Barnard’s Creek, which the golf course drains into.
From the SEF website: “Tidal waterways do best when no more than 5 percent of the watershed is covered by buildings, parking lots, streets, and other impervious surfaces. Severe stress occurs at 17 percent impervious area.” Currently, 22 percent of the land around Barnard’s Creek is impervious, which SEF claims is pretty bad (and it is), but still fixable. Were the development to happen, it would push the percentage up to 24 percent.
Mr. Cline voices concern about where the children of the new families who move into the 536 housing units will go to school, with student enrollment at NHC schools already exceeding capacity by 6 percent. He concludes with the unsettling fact that the standard amount of park acreages in metropolitan areas is 10 acres per 1,000 people; Raleigh has 20, Asheville has 12, and even New York City has 5. Wilmington only has 4.
Save Echo Farms plans to fight for an Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) during the 2017 City Council election. An APFO requires elected officials to address infrastructure concerns before development begins. As John Hirchak says from the stage, “It makes them do it in the right order.”
Save Echo Farms is not anti-development or private property rights, Hirchak assures, but it is pro-greenspace and pro-smart development.
• • • •
Several days later, in the labyrinthine offices of the City Planning Department, I interrupt Glenn Harbeck in his office as he prepares to eat lunch. He is unwilling to give me a specific quote on the Echo Farms development because that means the city taking a stance on private agreements between private individuals, who were involved in litigation. He does say the city cares about how the city is formed. He mentions, if I was interested in learning more specifics, there is a public terminal at the city clerk’s office with all the records about Echo Farms (call ahead to reserve a time).
He is willing to talk with me about broader topics, like the growth of our city, for instance. “Wilmington doesn’t send out invitations, inviting people to live here, but we don’t pull up the drawbridge, either,” he says. “People want to live here. It’s a back-to-the-city movement. A wiser man than I once said planning for future growth doesn’t cause growth any more than planning for retirement causes old age.”
The city is expecting 55 to 60 thousand people to move here in the next 25 years. That’s a lot of people crowded onto our finite little peninsula. All those people will need houses and places to drive cars, but I’m willing to bet they don’t want to live surrounded by soul-sucking gray concrete. People need to be around green spaces—to paraphrase environmental writer Edward Abbey, we need wilderness as surely as we need good bread—and we need to curtail our building so it has the least possible negative effect on few still-wild spaces left, which make Wilmington the place it is.
Our local green spaces are not remote wilderness, they’re not virgin forests. They are precious because they are all we have left. They are our last tenuous thread connecting us to the natural world, in our increasingly urbanized society. They are where people learn to love birds, where people go to look up at the sky as we always have. To be outside under the bright sun, to be in the quiet, which allows them to think about their relationship with the larger world surrounding them. We can’t keep cutting down our trees, like the last old oak on Market Street by the Sonic, and paving with abandon, like we have on Kerr Avenue and Eastwood and Independence.
Abbey also says, “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” Our forests and green spaces are why people want to live here. How can we best find the balance between growth and preservation? I don’t know, but we’re going to have to figure it out soon.