A golf course subdivision confronts developers who want to build on its fairways.
An army of white-haired dandelions marches across the greens at Ann Arbor Country Club, like the ghosts of long-gone golfers. Last autumn’s fallen leaves blow against the clubhouse’s locked front door. The grass on the once meticulously groomed fairways is now knee-high. Throughout summer’s hottest days, the pool yawns, empty. Tennis courts are cracked and netless.
“It hurts to see this,” says Peter Logan, president of the Loch Alpine Improvement Association (LAIA) and longtime AACC member, as he surveys the formerly pristine course. “The golf course predated our neighborhood, and most of us bought our homes here because we either liked the idea of living in a golf course community or at least liked the idea of having beautiful rolling green space in our neighborhood. Generations of young swimmers have trained in our pool–we’ve had some serious Olympic contenders start their careers here. But no more.”
Loch Alpine neighbors are waiting anxiously to learn the fate of the golf course. Its owner, West Virginia oncologist and developer Lewis Whaley, signed a letter of intent last fall to sell the ninety-year-old golf course to Farmington Hills-based Realtor Steve Schafer. Schafer immediately approached Toll Brothers to build homes on the golf course. But LAIA says the country club’s deed includes a stipulation that 75 percent of Loch Alpine homeowners must agree to any golf course conversion–“and that isn’t going to happen,” Logan says flatly.
Last fall, Whaley and Schafer asked to share their vision with Loch Alpine residents in three meetings–which Logan politely calls “emotionally charged.” During the first meeting, Schafer’s plan called for eighty homes to be built around the clubhouse and pool. At the second meeting, the plan showed 117 homes, no pool, no clubhouse.
“The developer didn’t bring us an acceptable plan either time,” Logan says. “The predominance of wetland soils, floodplain areas, drainage patterns, and infrastructure easements significantly limit house development on the course, and Schafer didn’t take those into consideration. He didn’t present concepts that had been carefully studied, and Loch Alpine residents dismissed his ideas.”
In January, the LAIA board wrote to Whaley, suggesting that the swimming pool and other club facilities open for the summer, to generate revenue for the owner and to continue the swim program. “We thought that would benefit us both–after all, he’s still paying taxes, insurance, and the LAIA dues” of $8,000 a year, Logan says. “But he didn’t respond.”
In February, the Webster Township planning office informed Schafer that the township would not review a site plan without written documentation that the deed restrictions had been removed. Loch Alpine is on the border between Webster and Scio townships, and both, Logan says, “are well versed about our deed restriction.”
Since that time, the LAIA hasn’t heard from either Whaley or Schafer. “They haven’t challenged us legally, but our attorneys inform us that our restriction agreement is ironclad,” Logan says. “We’re taking a proactive wait-and-see approach.”
Loch Alpine residents have volunteered for committees to investigate options for the future of the club: identifying potential golf course and restaurant investors, the possibilities of operating the pool and tennis and basketball courts independently, studying how to protect the land from development, and, should all else fail, identifying a best possible development scenario.
The course–originally the Loch Alpine Golf and Country Club–was the vision of Ward Blakely, an entrepreneur who, in the early days of the automobile, invented a metal clamp that quickly fastened automobiles to multilevel open flatcars for shipment. Delighted that his automobiles no longer needed to be secured clumsily in boxcars, Henry Ford ordered as many clamps as Blakeley’s manufacturing plants could produce, making the Dexter resident (his home was the large brick house at the foot of Huron St.) a very wealthy man.
A golfer, Blakely admired Barton Hills, but thought it was too tied to the academic and hospital halls of Ann Arbor. He envisioned a similar development aimed at the rising young class of businessmen in Detroit’s automotive industries: an eighteen-hole course surrounded by a residential community of 410 houses and two man-made lakes.
By 1925, Blakely had acquired 470 acres with frontage on the crude buggy trail meandering between Dexter and Delhi. He planned to convince the Michigan Central Railroad to establish a station nearby for his community’s new residents.
In 1926, he launched three simultaneous construction projects: two dams across Boyden Creek to form Bridgeway and Greenook lakes; the front nine holes of the golf course; and roads and a water and sewerage system. He hired Scio and Webster township farmers and their mules for the princely wage of $8 per day to clear the land, beginning with the hardwood forest covering the twenty-three acres that would become lakes. The Delhi sawmill converted the trees into lumber.
As ninety mule teams labored to prepare the land, Blakely realized that golfers would require good auto access, noted LAIA historian Joe Clayton in Ann Arbor Country Club’s Our History, published in 2003. “Jackson Road was the major East-West highway, from which Zeeb Road was the only paved N-S road, still a mile or so from the golf course.”
Blakely learned that nineteenth-century legislation allowed “covert” roads, constructed and financed by neighboring landowners. He built Huron River Dr. to connect Dexter to Ann Arbor. It became the last privately financed covert road in Michigan.
Blakely allocated 125 acres for the golf course, including wetlands. “In the days of Bobby Jones’ golf and hickory-shafted clubs, this was long enough,” Clayton wrote. “Greens were elevated. Fairways narrow. The creek was always in play, and there was really no out-of-bounds since the ball was regularly played from what is now someone’s back yard.”
Construction of the front nine was completed in 1928, the back nine by 1931. When he was ninety years old, Al Gregory, son of the original groundskeeper, recalled the golf course’s early years: “On weekends, I was the ticket-taker and starter,” Gregory told Clayton. “Some Sundays we had 300 golfers.”
The Ann Arbor News ran a story headlined “Loch Alpine Is One of Michigan’s Finest Golf Courses, Says Golfers.” The two-dollar greens fees were augmented by fees paid by local farmers who pastured their dairy cattle on future residential lots.
The Depression interrupted Blakely’s plans: home construction cratered. After Blakely died in 1935, his son Malcolm built a clubhouse and managed the course until he was drafted for World War II. During the war, greenskeeper James Gregory (father of Al) converted all of Loch Alpine into pastures for cattle and sheep.
In 1954, all 454 residential lots and the golf course were sold to a group of Detroit businessmen for just $130,000. The enterprise soon failed, and the golf course was separated from the residential lots, though it was “carried in the overall plat of Loch Alpine, as it still is now,” according to Clayton’s history.
The first homes finally appeared in 1956. By 1960, sixty homes overlooked the lakes. The most recent houses were constructed early in the 2000s. Though a handful of lots remain undeveloped, “Loch Alpine closely resembles Blakely’s original layout,” Logan says.
From 1961 onward, a succession of country club owners came and went. In 1963, hoping to attract more golfers, the name was changed to the Ann Arbor Country Club. In 2001, the club created a new “equity” membership to raise money for a new clubhouse and pool. Those who objected to paying more left.
Club leaders hoped the new facilities would bring in 350-400 new members–but then came 9/11 and Michigan’s economic downturn. Very few people signed up, and banks became more cautious, withdrawing financing for the pool.
Club members Herb and Betty Earle (now deceased) immediately offered an interest-free $400,000 loan to pay for the pool. “They were wonderful people,” Logan says. “Herb told me he had not swum in the old pool more than four times in all their years here, but he explained, ‘Betty and I did it for the kids.’ They had no children of their own.”
In 2002, the new clubhouse and pool opened. But within a few years, membership seriously declined as fees soared. The club faced its worst crisis since the Depression.
According to Logan, in 2010, the club could not meet its mortgage obligations. Club member Michael Weikle convinced Whaley, a friend, to purchase the note. “As a member, I didn’t want to see the golf course developed,” Weikle says.
The West Virginia physician formed a company, A2C2 LLC, and paid $625,000 for the $1.7 million note just ahead of a consortium of AACC members, who were working on their own plan. Weikle, an attorney, took over management of the operations. He says he was never paid a salary. “Lew and I agreed that when it was sold, if there was a profit, I would get a percentage.”
Under the new owners, “the greens and facilities never looked better,” says former LAIA board member and thirty-nine-year resident Marvin Boluyt. “But there was no marketing–of the restaurant, pool, or golf course–to bring people in.”
Whaley says he poured between “$300,000 and $600,000 a year” into the club. He opened the course to the public with annual memberships and per-round rates, but then ran into difficulties with early members, who had paid much more.
Early in 2012, at the LAIA’s annual meeting, members voted to approve a one-year assessment of $150 per household to support the AACC. The vote “would have put $60,000 in the coffers, with the expectation that if the relationship went well, the assessment would continue,” Weikle says. “We were trying hard to pick up local support to keep the club working.”
But the LAIA eventually pulled out of the arrangement. “The board did not receive the financial documentation that it had been requesting to validate this special assessment, and consequently did not collect the assessment,” Logan says.
“The board asked us to pay back the club’s old bills, but we needed the funding for operating expenses,” Weikle counters.
By then, Weikle says, Whaley “had been funding the losses out of his pocket for two years.” With the LAIA assessment off the table, he “redoubled his efforts to find a buyer.”
Weikle was asked to leave the management position the following year–but Whaley maintains that management was not the problem.
“Ten years ago, thirty-two million Americans golfed. Now we have fewer than twenty-five million golfers,” Whaley says. “The demographics are changing dramatically–millennials are not golfers.” He points out that in the past year nineteen Michigan golf courses have closed or been put up for sale. “We made every effort we could to make this club viable commercially.” He closed the club late last fall and signed the letter of intent with Schafer.
“We know Loch Alpine thinks it’s an ironclad agreement,” Weikle says, “but what idiot would sign a sales agreement for the country club realizing no backup existed if the golf course failed? I don’t think the restriction is valid.”
Logan says LAIA hasn’t seen the letter of intent, but “we’ve been told that he can’t entertain or discuss other offers for the duration of the letter’s eighteen months … We know there are three or four golf course operators who’ve expressed an interest in the Ann Arbor Country Club, but nothing can be done until that letter expires.” Meanwhile, the LAIA budget has a new line item–for possible legal costs related to the Ann Arbor Country Club.
“I don’t fault Lew Whaley for making the investment,” Logan says. “I’m grateful he tried to make a go of it. However, he’s known all along that we have a very strong restriction agreement. This facility means a lot to the people in Loch Alpine–golfers and non-golfers alike. We value the open green spaces and the recreation facilities that have been here for generations. Golfers now have to go elsewhere to enjoy their sport. And this summer, for the first time, we don’t have an AACC Dolphin team in the swim conference, so young swimmers won’t have the opportunity to train here. We miss the sounds of kids having fun at the pool.”
The LAIA board recently took an informal survey to assess residents’ opinions. “Some said if we could manage some green space and keep the clubhouse and pool as assets, that some development might be reasonable. Twenty percent were undecided. But the great majority said no to plans for development,” Logan says.
“If a developer were to put high-density housing on the open land, it would be a catastrophic change for our neighborhood,” Boluyt says. “The fact that we have such a restrictive clause proves that the people who had the original vision for this land use were extremely wise.”
“This is a waiting game,” says Logan, “and we’re prepared to wait.” They’re also prepared to take legal action, he adds, if the closed facilities are neglected and cause trouble.
Schafer says the deal with Toll Brothers is now off the table–“but that wasn’t the only developer we approached. We’re in discussions about our plans.”
In the September, 2016 issue of Ann Arbor Observer