By Daja Terry
Residents of Wilmington have been battling to preserve the green space of Echo Farms Golf and Country Club since September 2016, and on Wednesday, county and city leaders praised their efforts when they announced a joint effort to preserve part of Echo Farms, with plans to expand amenities such as a park and renewed trails and tennis courts.
New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Woody White and Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo announced that the county and city have together purchased 14 acres of land, which officials plan to make a public-use area with green space and trails, while keeping the existing pool, repairing tennis courts and adding new ones. White said that they also have plans to construct a new tennis and pool building on the property. The clay tennis courts at the park would be the only public clay courts in the county.
The announcement comes after residents formed the Save Echo Farms organization to protest a developer’s plan to redevelop the 102-acre golf course into residential units. Members of the group filled the audience of several Wilmington City Council meeting, standing out in their signature orange shirts, arguing that Wilmington was losing available green space as it grew.
Many wanted the city to purchase the golf course, but Saffo said that the purchase announced on Wednesday provided the city and county with the best possible deal, allowing them to secure green space while it was still affordable and available.
Matrix Development planned to build 240 multi-family units, 171 single-family homes and 125 townhomes on the 102-acre course, but the Echo Farms Resident Association sued the developer, arguing that the deed for the site restricted its use explicitly for the golf course. The association argued that the value of the homes would decrease without the golf course and other amenities. A U.S. District Court judge approved a settlement of the lawsuit in September of 2017.
In January of this year, Matrix Development raised the possibility of the county and city buying out 18 acres of land that already housed a pool and about five clay tennis courts. As a part of the lawsuit, the pool was scheduled to stay open through the summer, a concession of Matrix Development.
The available land use in Wilmington is getting smaller, Saffo said.
“We’re trying to balance the growth in Wilmington. There’s only 10 percent left—about 2,800 acres total—in the city limits,” Saffo said at an announcement Wednesday. “We have to seize the opportunity for open space while it’s still here.”
White said that the county would cover 60 percent of the $1.7 million cost, and the city would cover the rest. While the property will be jointly owned by the county and city, New Hanover County will be serving as the facility’s operator.
“This is a joint effort,” Saffo said. “When people work together, things do get done. We saw you, city council. We heard your voices. We were trying to figure out a way to make this thing happen.”
While the golf course is gone, the mayor said that this deal will be the best for the community.
“The new park will serve the community for many years to come,” he said. “It will be a great legacy to leave future generations of children.”