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BOSTON GLOBE - Golf Course On Block - Housing Project's Plans Now In Limbo

April 19, 2009

A Millis golf course slated to be the site of the town's largest housing development is scheduled to go up for sale later this month in a foreclosure auction.

The Glen Ellen Country Club, owned by a subsidiary of Boston-based developer Corcoran Jennison Cos., is a 143-acre property that includes a golf course and clubhouse. The company had hoped to use part of the land to build 341 condominiums for people age 55 and older, a project that would have boosted the town's housing stock by close to 10 percent.

But the Glen Ellen Co. Inc., the Corcoran Jennison entity that officially owns the property, has fallen behind in payments on financing for the course, sparking proceedings that have set up the April 30 auction, according to documents on the website of J.J. Manning Auctioneers of Yarmouthport.

Justin Manning, president of the auction house, said he was hired by GE Financing, the parent company of the mortgage holder, to sell the property.

"Sometimes the process is used to rattle swords," Manning observed. "This is not sword rattling."

Representatives of Corcoran Jennison and GE Financing, as well as employees of the golf course, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

When the Glen Ellen Co. proposed in 2006 to scrap part of the course to accommodate construction of the condos, a Corcoran Jennison spokesman told the Boston Globe that the golf course needed different sources of income since people were golfing less and booking fewer events.

The company won approval for its plans from the town's Planning Board last year, the largest town permitting hurdle, according to Town Administrator Charles Aspinwall. It was awaiting approvals from the Conservation Commission, the Board of Health, and the Board of Selectmen, he said.

Now, the plans are in limbo as a buyer is sought for the property. With the future of the housing development unclear, residents are left to wonder what will happen to the semiprivate golf course, which has been around since the 1960s.

Raymond Tocci, who lives on Orchard Street near the golf course, said he is "tickled" to hear about the auction. He said that he and other neighboring residents opposed the condo construction because their street, which leads to the golf course entrance, would have been the main route for the additional traffic in and out of the development.

"It's just a quiet path. With all the condos, there would be people coming and going and deliveries," said Tocci. "It's a very narrow road as it is."

But Tocci hopes that the golf course remains operating so he and his retired buddies can continue taking advantage of the golf course's senior discount during their two to three golf outings per week. "I love the golf course and the proximity, and the prices are great," said Tocci.

The town's public health director, Scott Moles, said that at a Board of Health meeting Monday, the golf course's general manager, Tom Devane, said the company is racing against the auction date to refinance the mortgage. But Moles added that a lawyer for Corcoran Jennison has been saying the same thing for months.

Last week, the golf course was still open for business, but on a smaller scale than past years, Moles said. The course is not accepting memberships and is only selling daily golf rounds, according to Moles, who has inspected the premises.

The Glen Ellen Co. bought the golf course in the 1990s in the midst of a golf course development boom. During that decade, about 2,500 new golf courses were built across the country, adding to the nation's supply of about 13,000 courses, according to the National Golf Foundation, which tracks the industry.

In 2001, when the economy was still riding high, Corcoran Jennison Hospitality funded a $3 million renovation of the country club, which got a new irrigation system, new bunkers and tees, and new cart paths.

Although the Glen Ellen Co. has not said why it had fallen behind on its loan, the sagging economy has imperiled other golf courses. Pembroke Country Club was in foreclosure earlier this year but escaped being auctioned off when National Hockey League veteran Jeremy Roenick, who now plays for the San Jose Sharks, swooped in and bought the club for $4.4 million in March.

Manning, the auctioneer, said Glen Ellen would be the first sale of a troubled golf course handled by his company in recent memory. He said he's heard via telephone from dozens of interested people, and his website has recorded more than 500 downloads of the auction's 31-page information packet.

Though he wouldn't name names, Manning said the people he's spoken with represent investors, national housing development companies, and golf course companies.

Aspinwall said that if anyone besides the Glen Ellen Co. wishes to proceed with the housing development, they'll have to restart the permitting process, since the property slated to be auctioned off has less acreage than what was included on the Planning Board-approved proposal. The Glen Ellen Co. would retain ownership of 80 acres on the site designated as open space in the project proposal.

Aspinwall said the Glen Ellen Co.'s proposal was the best option for a housing development, since it would not add children to the school system. But he would not comment on any future possibilities for the property.

"There's a lot of hypothetical situations," said Aspinwall, "and to speculate on one or the other would be a waste of time."