- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - Supporters of the effort to convert Elbel Golf Course into a nature preserve have plenty of examples to follow, thanks to a combination of social and economic factors.

Combined with the declining popularity of golf, the recovering real estate market has made it more affordable to purchase golf courses for conservation purposes.

As a result, dozens of courses around the country have been converted into nature preserves in recent years, from Ohio, to Florida, to Wisconsin, blazing a trail for groups like Elbel for Everyone.

That includes Wildflower Golf Club, now Wildflower Nature Preserve, on Florida’s southern Gulf Coast.

Faced with declining profits, the owner of the course decided to put it up for sale in 2006, drawing interest from local condo developers.

But the recession hit and the bottom fell out of the real estate market, scaring away investors.

Into that void, at the urging of residents and county officials, stepped the Lemon Bay Conservancy, a not-for-profit land trust based in Englewood, Fla.

Given the market, the group managed to negotiate the price for the course down from $2 million to just $750,000, Eva Furner, a member of the conservancy, said.

“I think we were lucky in being able to acquire the property at the price that we did, and I wouldn’t guess that we’d have another opportunity today to do that,” Furner said.

Despite an improving real estate market, Elbel is in a similar spot.

Constructed for $645,000 in 1965, the 313-acre property has been valued at just $747,500 as a golf course based on the average of two separate, independent appraisals.

And like Wildflower, Elbel abuts a wetland - the appropriately named Mud Lake - supplying it with conservation value.

Even so, the city, in an effort to generate revenue for parks improvements, wants to lease the property northwest of the city to a private operator for use as a golf course.

Elbel for Everyone, for its part, wants the city to consider other options, such as a nature preserve, that protect and preserve public access to the property.

To that end, the group has consulted with a land trust about partnering to buy the property, and it has asked for the formation of a commission to study that and other options.

But acquiring property for conservation purposes is no easy task, Furner said.

It took the Lemon Bay Conservancy 15 months to come up with the money to buy Wildflower Golf Course, she said, mostly from private donors, including a bequest from the estate of a local philanthropist.

The Western Reserve Land Conservancy, a not-for-profit land trust in northern Ohio, outside Cleveland, was more fortunate.

The group won a grant from Clean Ohio Conservation Fund to purchase the former Royal Oaks Golf Club in partnership with Lorain County Metro Parks.

But different states have different resources, Joe Leslie, director of acquisitions for Western Reserve, said, and different laws regarding the use of state and federal conservation funds.

For example, in Indiana, only park and recreation boards established under state law can apply for federal Land and Water Conservation funds - not land trusts.

“It’s a challenge, Leslie said.

That said, Elbel has an advantage in terms of funding in that it abuts a wetland, Leslie said.

“Absolutely, because the protection of those contiguous properties (the course), the expansion of those contiguous properties” is important, he said.

He noted that chemicals from golf courses such as fertilizers and pesticides typically wash into adjacent wetland areas, negatively affecting plant and fish species.

Unlike Ohio, Indiana offers scant public funding for conservation, Cliff Chapman, president of the Indiana Land Protection Alliance, said, perhaps explaining the absence of any golf course projects here.

“The main source that’s been available for over 20 years is the Indiana Heritage Trust, and that’s the environmental license plate,” said Chapman, with the Central Indiana Land Trust. “Unfortunately, sales have been going down for over 10 years, so it’s only producing about a $1 million a year.”

At the same time, he said, the General Assembly has cut funding for conservation from $5 million per year to less than $100,000.

The state did establish a $30 million “Bicentennial Land Trust” in partnership with the Lilly Endowment in 2012, Chapman said, but the money has all been spent.

And it’s very difficult in Indiana to levy a local tax for conservation, which is a popular option in other states, he said.

“Land conservation groups in Indiana have to be very creative, have to be patient,” Chapman. “There’s very little funding, very little public funding to go for.”

But acquiring the property is just the first step.

Next comes restoration, which carries its own considerable expense.

The Lemon Bay Conservancy, for example, will spend $1.17 million to restore Wildflower Golf Course, Furner said, with help from the local water management district and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It took the group several years to come up with the money, Furner said.

“It just takes a long time to work with different organizations that have money available, to get onto their radars,” Furner said. “Without them, we as a land trust and nonprofit would never be able to come up with enough money to do the restoration we wanted to do.”

Beginning in April, the restoration process is expected to take about 15 months, Furner said, and involve considerable work.

“It’s difficult because it requires really detailed surveying of the property and planning all the elevations and all the excavations,” she said.

It also requires the removal of non-native plant species, including exotic green and fairway grasses, Furner said, combined with the reintroduction of native species.

But Elbel for Everyone faces other challenges, as well - namely persuading the city to not only maintain control of the property, but eliminate the golf course.

So far, the city has only offered to lease, rather than sell, the facility to a private operator.

Should the city change its mind, restoration of the property would be beneficial to local plant and animal species, Furner said, and to the adjacent wetland.

Already, Furner said, various plant and animal species are returning to Wildflower Nature Preserve.

“We are seeing a lot of animals using the property,” Furner said. “We have bobcats out there, we have an endangered species down here called the gopher tortoise that is using the property. We have a group that does bird studies for us, and they have over 100 species of birds that they have observed using the property.”

Members of the community also are using the property, she said.

“In the years since we’ve bought it, we have put in a network of trails,” Furner said. “So we do a whole series of public nature walks now with volunteer guides.”

The conservancy also hosts a summer STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) camp in partnership with local school districts, she said.

That said, it’s taken the conservancy more than six years to get to this point, and it will take many more before the property returns to a level of its natural state.

“It does take time,” said Leslie. “That’s the hard part.”

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1QGGbaM

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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