You’re an aging boomer looking to cross over that retirement finish line in the next few years, and you’ve decided it’s time to put some meaning into that Chinese fortune cookie that you keep getting — “big changes ahead.” After 30 years, you’re ready to bolt the cul de sac for a brand-new house in a residential golf course community where you live out your dream — 18 holes at least four days a week.

Your spouse doesn’t share your passion for the game, and her first reaction is not so positive. If we’re going to move, she says, shouldn’t we be doing the environmentally correct thing and move to a place with higher density where we can use public transportation, and walk to work (she’s not retiring yet) and everyday shopping needs?

She’s right on that point. You won’t be walking to work in a golf course community unless you work at home — most new residential golf course communities are built on the far edges of suburbia, where the land costs are low enough to make such a project financially feasible. You will depend on your car to get everywhere, just as you likely do now.

But, zeroing in on the environmental impact of the golf course itself, it’s quite benign when it’s well maintained, says Yaling Qian, a turfgrass scientist at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. Not only does turfgrass control soil erosion, stabilize dust and help to dissipate summer heat, Qian’s research has shown that turfgrasses also absorb significant amounts of carbon dioxide, which accounts for about 85 percent of all greenhouse gases annually emitted by the United States each year.

Unlike trees that store carbon dioxide until they are cut down, turfgrass stores it in the soil, so that mowing has no effect, Qian says. Her research has also shown that removing, mulching and recycling grass clippings can reduce fertilizer needs by as much as 60 percent. Of interest to homeowners, simply leaving the clippings after mowing will also produce some benefit.

Another benefit of a golf course residential community is its built-in solution to the stormwater runoff that bedevils every new subdivision in the country, Qian says. The golf course is a “softscape” that can absorb most of the stormwater runoff produced by the adjacent suburban “hardscape” — roofs, driveways and sidewalks. As the water is absorbed, the car-related contaminants are filtered out by the soil and thus kept out of the ground water.

In some instances, the stormwater runoff is recycled and used to irrigate the golf course.

Golf course living brings you closer to nature than you might imagine, said Tom Smith, of the Michigan Turfgrass Environmental Stewardship Program. In the old days, many golf courses were mowed “fence to fence,” but today a well-maintained course will have unmowed buffer areas, which attract local flora and fauna. Within a few years’ time these areas can become established mini-ecosystems with both predator (hawks and owls) and prey (mice, birds and toads). When these buffers adjoin golf course lakes, Smith adds, they attract wetland “critters,” including waterfowl, frogs, turtles and the occasional snake.

Your spouse remains unconvinced. How about the pesticides that they use to keep all that grass looking so good, she asks.

Pesticides are used, but far less than the quantities your next-door neighbor tends to spray all over the place.

Most golf course managers now follow an integrated pest management program that is holistic in approach, explains Ron Calhoun, a turfgrass weed specialist at Michigan State University in East Lansing. Widespread use of pesticides for weed control is regarded as both expensive and ineffective. A far less costly approach, which also produces better long-term results, looks for the underlying condition that allowed the weeds to get a toehold and then eliminates it.

When the pesticides are applied, Calhoun says, the applicator must observe strict “drift” protocols to prevent the pesticides from being blown onto adjoining property. For example, if the wind speed is more than 10 to 15 miles per hour, the pesticide cannot be applied.

Current U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations have greatly altered golf course pesticide use, says Joe Vargas, a plant pathologist, also at Michigan State. The number of applications per season has been reduced to one or two, and the allowable amount of active ingredients per acre has been reduced by nearly 90 percent. In addition, the toxicity effect on all fauna in an ecosystem must be tested, including, Vargas says, “birds, fish and even earthworms.”

The turfgrasses now used on golf courses today have also helped to reduce pesticide use, Calhouns adds. The grasses are hybrids selectively developed to be resistant to bugs and diseases, as well as to heat and drought.

You seem to be winning the environmental arguments, but then your wife brings up Cousin Millie who lives on a golf course and is constantly complaining about golfers and golf balls in her backyard.

Yes, this does happen when a residential golf course is not well designed, says golf course architect Mike Benkusky of Crystal Lake, Ill., who’s been designing them for the last 18 years.

There are several critical factors, Benkusky says.

The first is the location of the houses. Most golfers are right handed; when they hit the ball, it veers towards the right. When houses are built on the right side of a fairway in the “landing zone,” the area where the tee shots usually fall, golf balls can end up in your backyard. To avoid this, many golf course developers limit home building to the left side of the fairway.

A second factor that causes golf balls to land in a homeowner’s backyard is the width of the fairway. From the center line of the fairway to your property line should be 200 to 250 feet, Benkusky says, adding that this figure has increased over the last five years because with the clubs and balls now available, most people can hit the ball further.

When a course is well designed, however, homeowners whose yards adjoin the fairway have more privacy because golfers do not congregate there as they do at the tees and greens, Benkusky says. Another plus with this location is that you are spared the occasional profanity uttered when a player makes a poor shot.

How can a prospective buyer tell if a course is well designed? A sure sign that it’s not is the presence of huge nets. The nets are installed to keep errant golf balls from breaking windows, landing in a backyard grill or otherwise ruining a pleasant afternoon.

There is still one more question to raise about your golf course proposal. How can you be sure that it will still be there in 20 years? This will depend on who owns it. To find out, you need to check all the relevant documents. In many cases, golf course communities have two or more associations, explains Miami real estate attorney Dennis Haber. One is for the homeowners and pertains to the housing, and the other covers the golf course. When you finally get to the bottom of the ownership question, you may find that the developer retains ownership of the golf course and has the right to sell it at any time. 

This unthinkable possibility has happened in a number of instances where a golf course community was once in an outlying suburban area and the golf course was built to entice buyers. Eventually, as the area became more built up, the golf course appreciated in value and the owner decided to cash in.

Another important item to check is the zoning for the golf course. If it’s “recreational use,” the developer may be prevented from turning it into more houses, the fate of most golf courses that have been sold, but he could convert it into something else that might be more profitable such as a tennis club or even a race track if the acreage is large enough, Haber says.

In some parts of the country, one look at the course and you know its future. In the Washington, D.C., area, Gaithersburg, Md., real estate attorney Jim Savitz says that developers build golf courses when they can’t build anything else because the land is located in a flood plain.

Questions? Katherine Salant can be contacted at www.katherinesalant.com.

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