Owner plans to turn Hickory Ridge Golf Club into solar farm

AMHERST — A large solar project may replace some or all of the greens and fairways at Hickory Ridge Golf Club, likely bringing an end to the course that opened on former farmland at the Amherst-Hadley town line in 1969.

Applied Golf Photovoltaic Power Systems is the name of the proposed 5.2-megawatt, direct current solar energy system that could be installed at the 191 West Pomeroy Lane site sometime in 2019.

A notice of intent filed under the town’s Wetlands Protection Bylaw comes before the town’s Conservation Commission Wednesday at 7 p.m.

Dave Wasenda, founder of Appliedgolf of Millstone, New Jersey, which owns the course, said Wednesday that financial challenges are forcing the change in use for the 150-acre property, which is bisected by the Fort River.

“The vision is that solar will take up much of the course, and that the course will close,” Wasenda said.

Wasenda said the 100 or so memberships the club has are not being renewed for 2019, and that if Hickory Ridge does stay open as a golf course beyond this year, it will be as a public course.

“It’s not fair to collect money with this project hanging out there,” Wasenda said.

According to plans filed by the ESS Group Inc. of Waltham, on behalf of Appliedgolf and Direct Energy Solar of Hanover, Maryland, the panels would cover two large areas of the golf course. The arrays will have a 16.4-acre footprint, with the enclosure 22.8 acres.

An environmental notification form has also been submitted to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection Western Regional Office, under the Massachusetts Wetlands Protection Act, and the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program has been notified. Information shows the property may be a priority or estimated habitat, under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act, for the creeper, the Eastern pond mussel, the dwarf wedge mussel and the wood turtle.

Keeping options open

Wasenda said members were notified in correspondence Tuesday that even though preservation of the golf course remains a priority, “poor financial results” are prompting consideration of installing a solar farm on the site.

“We’re just keeping options open,” Wasenda said. “We can’t do residential or commercial because of the Fort River.”

The letter reads, in part: “The historically poor financial results, which have accumulated to over $500,000 in operational losses over the past seven seasons (without any interest costs) culminating in disastrous 2017 & 2018 campaigns, have made it nearly impossible to continue operating under the current business model or to be able to find any potential buyers to assume this overwhelming responsibility.”

Wasenda said as a semi-private club, Hickory Ridge only has about 100 members, who are charged about $1,000 annually. This is supplemented with some public play. A normal private club will have 300 members.

He added that more golf courses are closing than opening across the country. “There is more supply of golf courses than demand,” Wasenda said.

The 18-hole golf course was built by the H. Alden Johnson family. Golf course architect Geoffrey Cornish and designer Bill Robinson created the course. Because the river periodically overflows its banks, some greens are unplayable at certain times of the year.

“Although we understand this news may come as a disappointment to many loyal Hickory Ridge members,” the letter continues, “we hope you understand that our continuous investment of over $500,000 in the past seven years was an indication of our aspirations to develop a thriving club for all to enjoy. Despite our substantial annual financial losses our goals never changed — to rescue, revive and preserve Hickory Ridge as all knew it to be. We unfortunately at this time have no choice but to seek a long-term sustainable plan for the property.”

‘Very interested’

The New Jersey golf management company in March 2012 purchased the 150-acre site, which also includes a clubhouse and pro shop, at a foreclosure auction for $1.05 million, and opened for that season despite damage that occurred in 2011 from the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene the previous August and the Halloween snowstorm. That foreclosure came after financial struggles for the previous owner, Douglas Harper of Sandwich, who bought it from original owner H. Alden Johnson in 2003.

These latest financial challenges were evident last fall when Amherst’s tax collector announced that $13,215 in back taxes were owed on Hickory Ridge.

Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the town has had lots of conversations with the owners of the golf course, in particular because the site is a sensitive environmental area with its proximity to the river.

“The town is very interested in the future of Hickory Ridge,” Bockelman said.

The difficulties with the property, Bockelman said, are also part of the reason the course at times struggles, with players wanting to be on an 18-hole course, rather than one with fewer holes due to some greens being too wet.

If Hickory Ridge closes it would leave the town with just two remaining courses, Amherst Golf Club on South Pleasant and the town-owned Cherry Hill Golf Course on Montague Road. But Bockelman said he is not sure the town course would benefit, noting that it has a different customer base.

Members disappointed

Phil Bell, a Hadley resident and Hickory Ridge member for about 15 years, said the reaction to the possible demise of Hickory Ridge has been “very, very negative.”

“A lot of people are upset,” Bell said.

He said emails are circulating with an aim to have a strategy to confront the possible changes.

“There’s no place like it,” said Sherry Webb of Hatfield, a 35-year member, who called the decision by the owner unfortunate.

“It’s very disappointing because Hickory Ridge offers things other courses don’t,” Webb said, observing there is a practice facility, the course is walkable and those who work on site are great friends. “It’s our social enrichment for much of the year.”

Her opinion is that Appliedgolf didn’t put in the marketing needed to keep the course viable.

Still, Webb said she hopes to play Hickory Ridge again next spring, and that a member might win Powerball before any final decisions are made.

The management company has renewed its all-alcohol license for 2019, which will allow it to continue using The Grille at Hickory Ridge, which is open for lunch daily and also rented out for various private events during the season. Wasenda said it would likely be shuttered, though, if the solar project moves forward, as it is an amenity aimed at golfers during the golf season.

Wasenda said he understands the course has been home to people for many years, but that people should understand demographics have changed.

“We just can’t afford it any more,” Wasenda said. “We never got the market traction we were expecting when we bought it.”

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.

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