Weeks after the Geauga Park District acquired 317 acres in a lease agreement with the Russell Township Park District, the county park system has decided to add another 180 acres to its growing land mass.
On Tuesday, park commissioners unanimously approved the purchase of the Wicked Woods Golf Club, owned by Ed and Connie Babcock of Junction Auto Sales in Chardon, for $1.5 million using previously appropriated tax dollars. The $1.5 million price tag includes $670,000 in buildings, $733,000 in land and $97,000 in equipment, according to the agreement.
“I love this park tremendously, and I hope it goes through because it’s a huge asset,” Board of Commissioners Vice President Jackie Dottore said.
If all requirements and conditions are met, the property sale will close on Dec. 31, according to the contract between the park district, and Wicked Woods Banquet LLC and West Claridon Wicked LLC, both of which are owned by the Babcocks. The Babcocks have owned the course since March 2015.
Thrasher, Dinsmore and Dolan law firm is representing the park district in the sale, and due to the firm’s prior and current representation of the Babcocks, the park district signed a conflict of interest waiver. According to the waiver, the Babcocks have obtained independent legal counsel regarding the Wicked Woods sale. If litigation results from the sale, the firm will not represent either party.
The course is located at the corner of Routes 44 and 87 in Newbury and Burton townships, and current plans are to restore the land to a natural state.
Executive Director John Oros said that the district does not have a budget for the restoration, but anticipates that one will be developed over the next year and a half to two years while wildlife biologist Paul Pira develops a natural resource management plan and Director of Planning and Operations Matt McCue develops a master plan and restoration plan and seeks grant money. Mr. McCue said that planning would start in early 2019.
According to Mr. Oros, the “turnkey” park would be open to the public in 2019, saying, “We have some work to do with the proposed name and entry sign, but there’s no reason why people can’t start walking the cart paths.”
After the Babcocks approached the district about the sale early this summer, Mr. Pira spent two days at the course to score the property. According to Mr. Oros, Mr. Pira’s score of the property ranked among the top 10 highest since Mr. Oros became executive director in 2014.
Mr. Pira said a western branch of the Cuyahoga River runs through the property and there is a cold-water habitat and forest habitat in the area. He believed that the golf course was likely using fungicide, pesticide, insecticide and fertilizers, which was impacting the water quality. He noted that park district experts may continue to use herbicide if they were worried about invasive species, but there would still be a huge reduction in chemical runoff.
Mr. McCue also noted that the central location of the course and its well-kept maintenance facilities would also be an asset, as currently park naturalists and maintenance staff have to travel to various locations to pick up equipment.
Board President Andrej Lah added that the central location would increase efficiency, and Mr. McCue explained that the Wicked Woods facilities could save his department from having to construct a new facility or improve existing facilities in the future.
Additionally, several pieces of equipment are included in the purchase, including several mowers and ATVs. Mr. McCue said that much of the equipment is similar to what the park district uses.
The clubhouse, which comfortably fits 150 people, is also included in the purchase and Mr. Lah asked what would be done with that banquet facility.
“My vision is to develop a request for qualifications proposal for a farm-to-table type restaurant that we would lease to a restaurateur,” Mr. Oros said. “Under the last owner, there were decent bookings, but I think it could be more than that.”
He continued that he has been in contact with the executive directors of the Cleveland Metroparks and Lake Metroparks, both of which have restaurants, and they have put Mr. Oros in contact with their planning staff. Wicked Wood’s current liquor license would be transferred to the park district, and Mr. Oros said that alcohol would only be allowed in the vicinity of the clubhouse and not the entire park. Along with the clubhouse comes all food and beverage equipment and supplies, tables and chairs inside it.
This purchase marks the second time the district has purchased and restored a former golf course. The district purchased Orchard Hills Park, a 237-acre former golf course owned by the Patterson Fruit Farm family, for about $3 million in 2007. Mr. Oros noted that the Geauga Park District was one of the first districts in the state to restore a former golf course.
“At Orchard Hills, we took the approach of letting things go. We need to have land stewards involved early in this restoration. We want to maintain more. You don’t want to leave it unchecked. Internally, we would be doing maintenance, so it doesn’t get away from us because that would lead to additional cost,” Mr. McCue said.
“Anything we can do to preserve land for future generations is a great thing,” Chief Naturalist John Kolar said. “There’s a substantial bit of restoration involved in transforming the golf course back to the natural habitat, but the benefit for future generations, to get kids down to the river, that has good water quality access. It’s a plus.”