Going for the green

Swaths of smooth golf-course grass increasingly mean more than a good place to chip and putt.

Developers, as is the case in Northeast Tacoma and around the Northwest, want the large, open and often contiguous spaces to build houses.

North Shore Investors LLC, which is buying North Shore Golf Course, submitted plans two weeks ago to close the course and build 860 houses and town homes. SBI Developing, a subsidiary of Soundbuilt Homes – one of the Northwest’s largest home builders – will develop the project, said Kurt Wilson, who manages SBI and North Shore Investors.

Neighbors have criticized the plans for eliminating a large green space, and say the project will hurt property values.

The possibility of replacing the course with hundreds of homes comes as builders everywhere cope with shrinking space and robust demand.

In 2000, 23 U.S. golf courses closed, according to the National Golf Foundation. By last year, that number swelled to 146, a shift driven largely by a need for residential and commercial space, said Jim Kass, the foundation’s research director.

Typically, it’s older courses that lose out to newer ones, he said. Eighteen miles southwest of North Shore, Pierce County is building Chambers Bay Golf Course – a $20 million project to include a waterfront walking trail and scheduled to open this summer.

“You might have a course that’s doing OK, but the profit potential is so much higher to sell it,” said Kass.

What will become of the North Shore Golf Course has yet to be decided. Planners are reviewing the builder’s plans, which might be subject to a moratorium on certain kinds of residential development enacted by the City Council two days after plans were turned in.


North Shore Golf Course opened in 1961 with few houses nearby.

In the 1980s, the city zoned the course for residential construction. Today, homes surround the course, built on its edges and up high to maximize views.

Ted Stone, the commercial broker selling the course, said two years ago that the plan was to keep North Shore a course. He said he approached city, county and tribal officials, though he said confidentiality agreements keep him from saying whom he talked to.

“If the city wanted to save it as a golf course, they should have stepped up and bought it,” said Stone, with Coldwell Banker Commercial.

Sometime in the last year, Metro Parks Tacoma, which runs all of the city’s parks, informally discussed the possibility of buying North Shore, said chief planner Lois Stark.

Though voters passed an $84.3 million parks district bond in 2005, only $1 million of it was for buying land, she said.

“We really had no money in the bond measure for golf-related projects,” Stark said. Metro Parks owns and operates the 27-hole Meadowbrook Golf Course in Tacoma, which had $1.6 million in revenue last year.

Residential real estate agent Lois Cooper, who lives on the course, said she brought Stone a buyer last year but was denied access to the course’s finances to determine if the business were viable. Cooper also said the course was priced too high for purchase as a golf course. The course is listed for sale at $18.95 million, though county records show the 2007 assessment at $6.2 million.

Stone says industry standards dictate that a buyer doesn’t see the books until qualified to purchase the property, which never happened with Cooper’s client.

In the end, a buyer with a different vision stepped forward, Stone said.

“I’m sure that Pebble Beach is worth more as a development property than a golf course, but Pebble Beach gets $350 a round as golf,” Stone said, referring to the famed course on California’s Monterey Peninsula. “North Shore could not command that kind of price.” North Shore charges $24 for 18 holes during the week and $30 on the weekend.

North Shore Investors has been putting the project together for six months, said manager Wilson.

Large pieces of property, of which there are few in the region, are attractive in an area that restricts urban growth, he said. Developers plan a series of meetings with Northeast Tacoma residents to provide information about the project and gather input, Wilson said.

“The lack of available land is driving prices up and causing a lot of redevelopment. Downtown Tacoma is a perfect example,” he said.

New lives await several other Northwest courses.

Long-term plans at Pacific Lutheran University would close the school’s nine-hole golf course and use it for expansion of the fitness center or, perhaps, construction of a football field, said spokeswoman Amy Cockerham.

The 27-hole Lapoma Firs Golf Course in Puyallup likely will go to housing developers sometime in the next decade.

Sam Lipoma, who declined to be interviewed for this story, told The Seattle Times last year that he planned to begin selling the land to developers but would maintain 18 holes through at least 2011. Lipoma opened the course with his father in the 1980s.

“The reality is we could operate the course for 50 years and not make the kind of money we are being offered,” Lipoma said. “I don’t want to think the train went by and I missed it.”

Last year, Homestead Northwest bought Birch Bay Golf Course north of Bellingham. The Lynden company plans to turn 18 short holes into nine longer ones and put up as many as 200 condo on the course’s edge, said Lisa Guthrie, Homestead’s director of resort development.

Restrictions on the land prohibit Homestead from replacing the course with housing. But Guthrie said golf courses will continue to appeal to home builders.

“There’s less and less land,” she said. “Generally, golf courses are sitting in nice, rural areas that are perfect for houses. Or in suburbia.”

Devona Wells: 253-597-8652