Neighbors Fight To Save Ahwatukee Golf Course

August 07, 2013

Phoenix area golf courses are facing an uncertain future. As a part of KJZZ's "Phoenix Votes" series on the Phoenix City Council election, we have a report about a dispute over a neighborhood golf course in the sixth district that has people wondering what the city should do about courses in financial trouble.

Ahwatukee golf course In July, the grounds of the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course were suffering after the water was turned off, resulting in brown and dying grass. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

On the south side of Phoenix some neighbors of the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course are standing near one of the greens. They are trying to keep the course open.  

Ahwatukee Lakes was purchased a few years ago by a California investor who ran into financial problems, so he closed it in May. The water was turned off, and people who live around here are upset. 

“My name is Ben Holt and I live on the 12th tee of the Ahwatukee Lakes Golf Course, and over the years I’ve watched the gradual deterioration of the course until it got to the point that it is today when it has been abandoned and its just on a fast track to ruin," said Holt.

Holt walks across the dry grass and he remembers the stench here a few weeks ago when lake fish and turtles died after the owner closed the course. He joined a group called "Save the Lakes" to prevent the golf course from being sold for new development. 

“We have CC&R’s that say that this property can only be used as a golf course in perpetuity,” said Holt.

Holt said the course owner has asked the city of Phoenix to rezone the property so 600 apartments can be built on the land. Peter Meier bought his home at Ahwatukee Lakes in 1975, and he is among those fighting to save the course.

“The houses directly along the golf course pay premiums to be on the golf course lot," Meier said.

He said his group is preparing to file a lawsuit against the golf course owner. Meyer said he is worried if the owner sells the property for apartments there will be more traffic and noise. 

"And the values that they paid for the golf course could have been anywhere from $10,000 extra per lot to some of the lake lots bringing $55,000 in addition to the price of the home. Well, when it’s in this kind of condition, they’re not going to get that kind of money back,” said Meyer.

The owner of Ahwatukee Lakes Wilson Gee has not responded to our repeated requests for an interview, but he has been working with the neighborhood group. He has agreed to water the grass and refill the lakes for a few months while he tries to sell the property.

In District 6, the neighborhood group said whoever wins the election should work to protect Ahwatukee Lakes from closing, and there may be a legal precedent. A few years ago, a similar lawsuit over a Tempe golf course went to the Arizona Supreme Court.  It ruled the property must stay open through 2025 unless the owner could provide further proof its losing money. 

The zoning battle over Ahwatukee Lakes is happening while the management of public courses in the city of Phoenix is changing. 

"The valley is so overbuilt with golf courses it adds even more insult to injury," said Rob Harman, deputy director of the Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department.  He manages all seven of the golf courses the city owns. 

“Maricopa County, the metropolitan Phoenix area has over 200 golf courses. That far exceeds any similar metropolitan area,” said Harman.

sign Left, the course in July 2013 after the water had been turned off. Right, the course in August 2013. (Photo by Steve Shadley - KJZZ)

In fact, a recent study shows the Phoenix area has 10 golf holes for every 10,000 people in the city. That is the highest rate in the nation and nearly triple the number of golf holes that you will find in Los Angeles or San Diego. 

“We have a number of golf courses that are privately owned and operated. Many of them were purchased for pennies on the dollar during the recent recession, and I think we will see more and more owners look to use that land and that property for a better and higher use,” said Harman.

He said even the city of Phoenix has run into financial issues which are nearly $17 million in debt.  The Phoenix City Council voted to keep the courses open, but:

“We’ve issued a request proposal to find a private firm to come in and maintain our golf courses. One of our largest expenses is course maintenance,” Harman said.

He added that the city has worked out an agreement allowing Arizona State University to manage Papago Golf Course. In exchange ASU’s golf team could use the course, and the university would build a new club house. 

Turns out, Phoenix is not the only city grappling with land use issues around golf courses. Both the Prescott and Tucson City Councils are also reviewing proposals to privatize their golf courses because of financial problems.

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