Housing plan for Echo Farms rekindles debate over development expansion

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Sign for Save Echo Farms. (File photo by Hannah Leyva)

WILMINGTON — Housing construction plans for the golf course at the heart of Echo Farms neighborhood were filed with the city last week, bringing the debate over the development back to the fore. On Friday, Dec. 9, the City of Wilmington agreed to schedule a hearing in January to consider a request to rezone the area on behalf of the residents who may be affected by the development plan.

Matrix Development, owners and operators of the Echo Farms Golf and Country Club, submitted plans for the construction of 536 residences: 171 single family homes, 125 town-homes and 240 multifamily homes. The golf course sits on an area that was zoned for 1,779 residential units by the county before the area was annexed by Wilmington.

In a press release, Matrix drew attention to the fact that this was “less than a third” of the allowable development, but members of the Save Echo Farms movement, spearheaded by John Hirchak, argue the proposed development will have a disastrous impact on school overcrowding, traffic, property values and public green space.

Plan for housing development at Echo Farms. (Courtesy Matrix Development)

Hirchak told Port City Daily that approximately a thousand properties – the value of which has been increased by bordering or neighboring the golf course – are at risk of dropping 10-30% in worth.

“Matrix says its a minimal plan, but it only feels minimal if you don’t live here,” Hirchak said. “This is a neighborhood with families that have lived here for a long time. We’re talking about a lot of elderly residents, people on fixed income. These properties represent most of their savings, and they’re going to lose a considerable amount.”

Hirchak said that he suspects Matrix’s insensitivity to the impact of their development plans stems from their remote location in New Jersey.

“This is an outlier property for them,” he said. “Their holdings are in New Jersey and Pennsylvania and Echo Farms, the one property in North Carolina. They don’t have to worry about wetlands or traffic or school overcrowding.”

Matrix Development CEO Joe Taylor told Port City Daily, “this was a thoughtful – and as you can read in the master plan – a conservative plan. I absolutely understand the sentiment of the Save Echo farms group, and we’ve come up with a plan, with a lot of consultation, that takes into consideration traffic, and ecology, and density.”

Kyle Kirkpatrick, speaking on behalf of Matrix, answered Hirchak’s charges of disinterest and insensitivity, saying “Matrix has submitted a thorough and well-thought-out plan with the input of a variety of local experts.”

Matrix worked with North Carolina-based consultants Kimley Horn on traffic issues and Wilmington-based landscape architecture firm Mihaly on wetland conservation and storm-water management.

Part of the contention between Matrix and Save Echo Farms is about how to profitably use the land. Matrix’s stated purpose for the plan was the failure of golf course to earn money. Taylor said, “we’ve lost money on the golf course for years … we’re not insensitive to why people wanted that space for that use, but we’re not going to do it.”

Hirchak argued this was caused by “bad management.” He continued, “there are profitable courses, here in Wilmington. So, if the excuse is that the course isn’t making money, then it’s bad management. It’s not the city’s fault, or the residents’ fault, or the golfers’ fault, it’s management’s fault.

“They’re being driven solely by profit, by short term profit,” he said, referring to the viability of a golf course in comparison to the amount of money a housing project could earn for Matrix. “Houses are profitable once. Golf courses are profitable over the long run.”

Kirkpatrick disagreed.

“The fact is, the golf industry throughout the nation has been in a decade-long decline, and that’s no different in Wilmington,” he said. “Matrix has seen far greater demand in our tennis and swimming facilities, which is why it has significantly expanded those components in its proposed site plan.”

Ultimately, Hirchak’s disagreement with Matrix extends beyond financial concerns. The Save Echo Farms website argues, “by saving the Echo Farms golf course as public green space, the city would add over 20 percent additional park space.”

The 139-acre course, which in the off-season charges county residents between $22 and $35 for a round of golf, is the second largest green space in the city after Greenfield Lake Park.

The Save Echo Farms movement, Hirchak said, “is about a lot more than this development.”

“It’s development in general,” he said. “The city thinks that the only way to increase tax revenue is to increase development. They’re so afraid to raise taxes nine dollars, that they get voted out. In five years the city will be built out. We’re headed for a train crash, we’re sitting a few cars back from the locomotive, and we’re watching it happen.”

The January hearing by the city will respond to a request from the Echo Farms Resident’s Association (ERFA). ERFA has coordinated with Hirchak in the past, but is distinct from the Save Echo Farms group’s focus on county-wide development, focusing more acutely on the Echo Farms development issue.

If they city rezones the golf-course, Matrix’s current plan will become untenable. For the time being, Matrix is continuing as planned. They have recently canceled all the current memberships and replaced them with a season pass for 2017 that would lead into the planned beginning phase of construction.

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