Abandoned swimming pool Wake Forest golf club
The swimming pool at the former Wake Forest Golf Course & Country Club, which closed in 2007. Credit: Lisa Sorg

This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.

Nature—and spray paint—are reclaiming the old Wake Forest Golf Course & Country Club. The 160-acre tract off Capital Boulevard was once a destination for those who wanted to conquer a difficult course, including the first hole, a Par 5, that according to ForeTee, a golf course review website, “plays to a whopping 711 yards from the back tees.”

Now the club house is boarded up, its mint paint faded by the sun. The swimming pool is empty, serving as a concrete canvas for graffiti artists. Golf cart paths are overgrown and muddy, flanked by noble old trees. Turtles bask on logs in the ponds, where beavers have built their dams. The fairways are still mowed, though, and the property has become a de facto park for walkers, joggers and nature lovers.

The latest dispute about the property—and there have been many—involves the Wake Forest investment company, Millridge, which is asking town officials for a special use permit to convert 126 of the 160-plus acre site for houses and townhomes.

The Wake Forest Board of Commissioners is holding a special meeting tonight at 6 p.m. at town hall, 301 S. Brooks Street, to discuss the issue and to take public comment.

But many neighbors are concerned that 40 years’ worth of pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, and fertilizer applications could have contaminated the soil. When that dirt is excavated for homebuilding, residents are worried contaminants could enter the air.

Last summer, several neighbors collected three soil samples and paid for them to be analyzed by an accredited lab.

The former clubhouse is dilapidated, as are the nearby tennis courts and swimming pool. Credit: Lisa Sorg

The tests detected arsenic and Chromium 6 in several samples. Both chemicals can naturally occur in soil in North Carolina. However, these same contaminants—known carcinogens—are also found in pesticides. 

One sample contained levels of arsenic eight times greater than a state benchmark. This is known as a preliminary residential cleanup goal, but they apply to known contaminated sites that are undergoing remediation—which the golf course is not. 

In two of the three samples, concentrations of Chromium 6 ranged from seven to 14 times higher than that goal.

Chlordane, a widely used pesticide that was banned by the EPA in 1988, was detected at very low levels.

Given the uncertainty about the origin and extent of arsenic and Chromium 6 at the former golf course, neighbors asked the NC Department of Environmental Quality to require the developer to conduct its own sampling.

“Leave it alone or remove it, but either way it needs further evaluation,” said Gina Micchia, whose home is on the brim of the course.

DEQ declined to do so, an agency spokesperson told Policy Watch, because the contaminant levels don’t exceed acceptable levels.

“Additionally, there is no known history of spills or disposal of hazardous substances. Without evidence of contamination, further evaluation by DEQ is not required.”

But it’s unlikely that routine spills or disposal of hazardous substances were reported. That would be especially true when there were fewer or more lenient regulations governing these pollutants. 

A person with direct knowledge of the operations at the golf course told Policy Watch that there were not large chemical releases but that contaminants entered the ground from routine maintenance: filling and rinsing spray tanks, oil and gasoline leaking from mowers and other equipment. Some pesticides and fungicides in use at that time also contained mercury.

At the time, containment and catchment systems were not legally required. Nor were there were oil disposal services in the early days of the course’s operation, so workers poured the material on the ground, the person said. An above-ground tank also held diesel fuel and gasoline, and there were minor but regular spills at that site.

The fairways are likely uncontaminated by this time, the person said, because the chemicals used had short half-lives. “But the areas near the maintenance barns and the greens should be tested,” the person said.

The samples recently taken by the neighbors were collected near the maintenance barns.

As for the greens, fungicides were heavily applied to those areas because the golf course owners wanted to grow cool-season grass in a hot and humid Southern climate.

“No one is stepping up to let us know if there’s a potential issue, Mary Kircher, who also lives in the neighborhood. “We’d love to find out if it’s not contaminated, but we need to understand what’s in the soil.”

A bank could require an environmental assessment as a condition of a loan for the property, but otherwise the neighborhood has little recourse.

A Phase I environmental assessment includes a review of historical records, maps, databases and interviews with current and previous landowners, or others familiar with the property.

If there is evidence of contamination or the potential for it, based on the research, a more extensive Phase II assessment can be required. That could include sampling of soil, groundwater and surface water, depending on earlier findings.

The original developer, Toll Brothers, told neighbors last year at a public meeting that “an environmental impact study is not required and will not be conducted,” according to meeting minutes.

It’s unclear if the new developer, Jim Adams of Millridge, will undertake a Phase I assessment. Adams was out of the office this week and could not be reached by deadline. His attorney for the project, Nil Ghosh of Morningstar Law Group, did not respond to emailed questions from Policy Watch.

Golf courses are chemical sinks. They are routinely doused with chemicals to keep the greens looking pristine, while gasoline and motor oil can leak from machinery or tanks onto the ground. Several studies and cleanups of golf courses in the U.S. have found hotspots, and in some cases, widespread contamination because of these historical uses.

In Minnesota, the state Department of Agriculture “became aware of high levels” of mercury, chromium and arsenic at tee boxes and greens at golf courses that were being redeveloped for housing.

In 2018, the trade publication Builder noted that “conducting adequate and timely environmental due diligence is essential because these sites tend to have residual soil and groundwater contamination related to the legal use of agro-chemicals such as fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides over a long period of time.”

The abandoned Wake Forest golf course also provides important wildlife habitat. Credit: Lisa Sorg

On its website, Partner Engineering and Science, an international environmental consulting firm with offices in Charlotte, advised developers, lenders and investors “to explore environmental due diligence” before jumping into a golf course renovation “to mitigate liability and financial risk.”

Other sensitive environmental areas are on the Wake Forest site. In addition to wetlands and ponds, Horse Creek runs through the property and flows into Falls Lake, the headwaters of the Neuse River. (Earlier this year, the Town of Wake Forest announced it would launch a study of pollution entering the Horse Creek watershed, paid for with $14 million in American Rescue Plan funds.)

Any disturbance affecting the Horse Creek or the wetlands would require a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

A web of zoning entanglements, foreclosure, and court decisions

The dispute over the use of the old golf course has been simmering for 15 years, has wound through the legal system, and even reached the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

In 1984 former owner, Joel Young bought the golf course and country club, which at the time was still in business. Seeing the potential to develop part of the land for housing, in 1999, Young successfully applied to the Town of Wake Forest for a Special Use Permit to sell some of the land as individual lots for two subdivisions, which have since been developed. 

As part of the Special Use Permit, Young voluntarily agreed to several conditions, including a guarantee that the golf course and its “environmental features” remain as open space forever. Those restrictions run with the land, not the owner.

By 2007, the golf course was no longer economically viable. Young tried to get out from under the previous Special Use Permit and sell to a developer. But he was sued by several neighbors and a homeowners association, who alleged that the property had to remain in use as a golf course in perpetuity in accordance with the 1999 agreement. The plaintiffs eventually voluntarily dismissed their case.

Two years later, Young tried again, asking the Town of Wake Forest to again modify the Special Use Permit for residential development. The town declined to hear his petition. Young sued in Superior Court and lost, then took the case to the state Court of Appeals, where he lost again.

Finally, in 2012, E. Carroll Joyner of Youngsville bought the defunct Wake Forest Country Club & Golf Course for a pittance—about $2,000 an acre—from Young. Toll Brothers had an option to buy the property for development as recently as last year, but the deal fell through.

Now Adams, the new developer, wants Wake Forest officials to allow him to remove most of the land from restrictions of the Special Use Permit to build houses. Instead, Adams is proposing to use an existing conservation easement and three adjacent ponds to meet the open space requirements, but the former golf course that was held as open space, as well as the abandoned clubhouse, pool, and tennis courts would be developed.

Comment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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